On January 3, The Washington Post published an op-ed signed by the ten living former secretaries of defense admonishing that, constitutionally, the US military is apolitical and cannot be involved in election disputes. Especially ominous was the fact that one of former Pentagon chiefs is former Vice President Dick Cheney; reportedly, it was his idea to publish the collective exhortation. Although Cheney had not been uniformly laudatory of President Trump during his presidency, he had been broadly supportive of him. And, at least until the recently departed attorney general, William Barr, aired his views, Cheney was the most vigorous public champion of the “unitary executive” theory of presidential power that Trump has so effectively brandished and expanded. Cheney is about the last person who would be expected to cry wolf about potential presidential excesses.
January 6, the day on which Congress was to officially count the Electoral College votes certified by the states, formally concluding the presidential election, was looming when the Cheney-instigated op-ed ran. For weeks, Trump had urged his followers to converge on Washington, D.C., on that day and insist that President-elect Joe Biden’s victory be invalidated. The bipartisan consensus was that the congressional procedure was strictly ceremonial, and that Vice President Mike Pence, who, per Article II of the Constitution, would preside over it, had no discretion to reject electoral votes. Likewise, obtuse efforts by loyalist senators and representatives to void the votes were seen as cynical political theater and legally doomed. By his own autocratic logic, Trump needed a Plan B to stay in power—and, by default, military force would have been a candidate.
Ranged against such a move is the longstanding tenet that the military could not involve itself in domestic political matters, a doctrine that was firmly reinforced last June. Originally, Trump had inveigled General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Mark Esper, then the secretary of defense, to accompany him as he walked from the White House to Lafayette Square for a photo op at a church while police dispersed civil rights protesters with tear gas as military helicopters hovered above intimidatingly. After this display, military eminences grises, including James Mattis, Mike Mullen, and Martin Dempsey, issued forceful and passionate statements criticizing Trump’s operational employment of military assets and symbolic enlistment of senior defense officials.
In congressional testimony, a chastened Gen. Milley disavowed military involvement in domestic political affairs, and Esper backed him up. Trump, then politically constrained from using the active-duty military, co-opted paramilitary forces from Department of Homeland Security agencies, effectively pulling together a veritable praetorian guard to carry out a politically motivated law-enforcement campaign involving federal deployments against left-wing protesters.
Against this backdrop, any subsequent resort to the military by Trump in the domestic political arena appeared fraught and therefore improbable. There was reason for constitutionalists to feel more sanguine than they did in May. For that reason, it seems very possible, if not likely, that Cheney and perhaps additional signatories of the op-ed had received disconcerted alerts from conscientious and patriotic civil servants, military officers, or other insiders about rumblings within the Pentagon of a potential effort to use military action to subvert the democratic transition.
Since the November election, Trump has been thoroughly disengaged from the urgent business of running a country in the throes of a pandemic, apparently spending most of his time thinking about how to stay in power. Within days of the announcement of Biden’s victory, Trump had fired Esper, most likely for taking the restrained position on the domestic use of the military, and installed pliant loyalists at the Pentagon. As court after court rejected Trump’s lawsuits premised on bogus allegations of voter fraud, pro-Trump extremists, including freshly pardoned former general and national security adviser Michael Flynn, turned to more hotheaded measures, reviving the possibility of Trump’s invoking the Insurrection Act and declaring martial law pending a supervised re-do of the election. The mainstream media and much of the Beltway policy community tended to dismiss such chatter as the work of impotent cranks.
For his part, Trump seemed to be acceding to bipartisan pleas that the administration begin the transition process as a matter of national security—although the Biden transition team continued to encounter friction from the Pentagon, suggesting that Trump administration officials had something to hide.
On December 14, Biden was conclusively determined the winner of the Electoral College vote. On January 3, with Congress’s certification of the result just days away, Trump made his instantly notorious phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, reasserting unfounded fraud claims and importuning him to “find” the nearly 12,000 votes needed to flip Georgia to Trump. The phone call was a troubling sign of Trump’s sheer desperation.
On January 6, violent pro-Trump protesters, flagrantly incited by the president himself, stormed and occupied the Capitol, fatally injuring one police officer and badly hurting many others, forcing members of Congress to flee to shelter, and interrupting the vote count for several hours. In all, five people died. Some of the intruders were carrying weapons, flex cuffs, and provisions, apparently planning to take prisoners, stay overnight, and hold mock trials. Trump was unambiguously the author of this episode, a clear act of sedition and insurrection. The Electoral College vote counting soon proceeded, however, and just after 3:40 AM on January 7, Pence announced that Biden had won the election.
The ten former defense secretaries’ worst fears did not materialize: Trump did not summon the military to assist the protesters, which would have constituted an outright coup. (Neither did he summon the National Guard to restore order; that responsibility fell to Pence.) Given all we know about his presidency, it is improbable that Trump restrained himself as a matter of principle. More likely, he and his confidants figured, in light of the backlash over Lafayette Square, that the civilian loyalists he had installed in the Pentagon would have had a hard time getting the uniformed military to go along with any attempt to thwart the democratic process. Esper may have been gone, but Gen. Milley was still chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Cheney and his co-authors might well have intended to bolster this perception of the uniformed military’s political neutrality and its resistance to Trump’s political manipulation.
Trump’s tactical forbearance does not absolve him. Quickly calling in the National Guard to aid the undermanned police and prevent the siege would have been a legitimate, non-political use of military force designed to preclude illegal interference with the political process. Instead, the administration appears to have ensured that the Pentagon was disposed to be non-responsive, leaving the pro-Trump protesters greater freedom of action. The senior officials whom Trump had planted upon Esper’s departure barred the District of Columbia guardsmen from receiving ammunition or riot gear, interfering with protesters except for self-defense, sharing equipment with local law enforcement, or using Guard surveillance and air assets without the defense secretary’s explicit permission. And they refused to authorize deployment of a quick-reaction force except as a last resort. It took the D.C. Guard two and a half hours to respond to the Capitol Police’s eventual call for assistance.
This hobbled response was in spite of the fact that federal and local law enforcement had weeks of warning that a large, angry, networked crowd would gather in Washington on January 6, intent on undermining the results of the election, as the prospective participants were all over far-right forums and digital platforms. Preparations for meeting that challenge were woefully inadequate—indeed, conspicuously lax. The contrast between law enforcement’s minimalist approach to the pro-Trump protests and its muscular confrontation of Black Lives Matter demonstrators was stark. Some Capitol Police simply removed barricades and let clamoring protesters past them.
The mayor of D.C. had claimed jurisdiction over policing Trump’s rally, so there is some blame to go around. But it is a fair inference that the Capitol Police’s slack posture—the force repeatedly turned down back-up—was conditioned by decisions taken by the White House and Trump officials. Indeed, it is not far-fetched to ask whether Trump, directly or through intermediaries, consulted with protest leaders about what action they and their followers would take at the Capitol after he sent them there from his rally. In any event, his incendiary public exhortation to his followers at the Ellipse to “walk down to the Capitol” and to “stop the steal” imparted a seditious message clearly enough.
The events of January 6 confirm that the ten former secretaries were hardly Cassandras: they were right in their concern that practically no act was beneath or beyond Trump if he calculated it might keep him in power. Beleaguered by overwhelming public outrage and congressional pressure for his removal, Trump now appears too preoccupied with avoiding criminal liability to continue to pose an immediate threat to the integrity of the republic. But his preposterously disingenuous speech of January 7, proclaiming his revulsion with violence and respect for democracy, didn’t remotely pass the laugh test. He condemned the insurrectionists—whom, twenty-four hours earlier, he’d assured of his “love” and told they were “special”—only to minimize the prospect of his own criminal liability for incitement, conspiracy, and other crimes. If he had thought he could get away with using military force to stay in office, he almost certainly would have done so.
Circumstantial evidence suggests that there may have been planning for an act of sedition far more serious than a MAGA hat invasion. The defense secretaries’ op-ed might be Exhibit A, and Gen. Milley’s October 11 interview with NPR—in which he felt pointedly compelled to reiterate that “there’s no role for the US military in determining the outcome of a US election”—Exhibit B. At a minimum, Trump has illuminated the risk that a more competent, subtle, and bureaucratically adept demagogue could deploy the military in some future crisis of domestic rule and legitimacy to upend the democratic process.
Concern has also arisen that he might try to paralyze that process by starting a “wag the dog” war with Iran. When Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi asked Gen. Milley to curb an unhinged and vindictive Trump’s access to nuclear codes and other military mechanisms on Friday, he noted that constitutionally he could not remove the civilian commander-in-chief from the chain of command, absent congressional or cabinet action. But that may take too much time to reliably protect the world from catastrophe. The country cannot comfortably count on the highly contingent boldness of a James Schlesinger, who as secretary of defense cordoned off an erratic Richard Nixon from military decision-making in his chaotic final days; nor can it rely purely on the discretion of military officers to disobey illegal orders or the guile of senior officials to circumvent or slow-roll reckless presidential directives.
It is incumbent upon the incoming Biden administration and the new Congress to investigate fully whatever contacts between the Trump White House and the Pentagon may have occurred in the weeks before and after the election, and to put in place safeguards that preclude any future day of infamy comparable to—or worse than—January 6, 2021.