Wednesday, December 15, 2021

How Close Did We Come to a Military Coup?

It is important to remember that the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol was just the last, desperate attempt by Trump implement a coup by overturning the results of an election. Of course, it all started prior to November 3 with the former president's claim that mail-in ballots during a pandemic were inherently fraudulent. But once Biden was declared the winner on November 7, things heated up. 

Amidst all of the revelations coming from the January 6 Committee recently, perhaps the most troubling came in the form of an email sent on January 5 from Mark Meadows saying that the National Guard would be present on January 6 to “protect pro Trump people.” We don't know the context of that email, but it was released among numerous emails and text exchanges Meadows had with members of Congress. 

Was Trump's chief of staff attempting to assuage concerns among Republican members of Congress who had participated in planning the insurrection that they would be protected? Or was he simply saying that the insurrectionists would be protected? We don't know. Either way, it is clear the Meadows knew the insurrection would turn violent and that pro-Trump people would require protection.

Suggesting that role for the National Guard came in the midst of concerns over whether Trump would actually use the military to launch a more traditional coup. One of the people who shared that concern was Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As Trump ceaselessly pushed false claims about the 2020 presidential election, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, grew more and more nervous, telling aides he feared that the president and his acolytes might attempt to use the military to stay in office, Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker report in “I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year.”

Milley described “a stomach-churning” feeling as he listened to Trump’s untrue complaints of election fraud, drawing a comparison to the 1933 attack on Germany’s parliament building that Hitler used as a pretext to establish a Nazi dictatorship.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper was also worried. He expected Trump to fire him after the election, "but was hoping to hold on if he could, at least for a few days after the election. He was worried about what Trump might try to do with the military if he were not at the helm." Esper was hoping for an indisputably clear election because he "feared that anything less might give Trump some shred of a reason to call out troops."

Esper was right in assuming that Trump would fire him after the election. The ax came on November 9. The new acting Defense Secretary would be Christopher Miller, who told associates he had three goals for the final weeks of the Trump administration: #1: No major war. #2: No military coup. #3: No troops fighting citizens on the streets. Why would the man in charge of the Defense Department even contemplate the possibility of a military coup? Perhaps there were whispers - or maybe even plans being floated around the White House.

As Aaron Blake summarized:

We now have two men who led the Defense Department and the nation’s highest-ranking military officer all suggesting [a military coup] was indeed something that concerned them — to the point where one of them was comparing it to Nazi Germany and another sought to hold onto his job for just a few more days so he could make sure he prevented such a drastic scenario.

Just prior to the November election, I found this interview with Bob Bauer, a Biden campaign advisor, reassuring. 

Hellerman and Bauer specifically address the question of whether the White House would use federal marshals to confiscate ballots. But ultimately this is the message Bauer sent:
Frankly, I'll tell you that there are agencies that [Trump] imagines under his command whose members understand they have legal liability if they follow illegal orders - and they won't do it...I can promise you that if [Trump] were to attempt to disrupt or undermine the election, he will fail.

At the time I remember thinking that at least part of Bauer's job at the time had been to consult with military leaders about how they would respond if Trump issued an illegal order to launch a coup. Bauer's confidence stemmed from the fact that he knew what their response would be. 

I won't pretend to know how seriously Donald Trump contemplated the idea of a military coup. But keep in mind that this is the guy who floated ideas about shooting migrants and building a moat with alligators on our southern border. We also know that, as is typical of bullies, he likes to threaten but rarely follows through. 

What we do know is that the leaders of our military were prepared to say a definitive "no" if the demand for a coup ever came. Grasping that reality, Trump incited his own followers to storm the Capitol on January 6. That, too, failed. 

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