While it was inevitable that Donald Trump would attempt to stage a coup in the event of a loss to Joe Biden, it was assumed that his authoritarian power grab would rely on the same smoke and mirrors act that he and his allies have leaned on throughout his presidency. He wouldn’t take to the White House balcony and declare himself president for life, in other words—he’d claim voter fraud, and his minions on Capitol Hill and in his administration would mobilize under their shroud of plausible deniability.
He’s done all that, of course: He’s spent two months now insisting he won reelection, and that he was the victim of a massive, multifaceted conspiracy, and an appalling number of Republican lawmakers—perhaps 140 or more in the House and a dozen in the Senate—are going right along with it. But whatever damage this unprecedented siege on the democratic process manages to inflict, it is almost certainly doomed to fail at its main objective of keeping Trump in office—and that has him exploring even more extreme ways to keep his grip on power, including, perhaps, by enlisting the military in his takeover, as former national security adviser Michael Flynn proposed last month.
Such a scenario may sound far-fetched, but it’s one that some of the nation’s most prominent national security figures are taking seriously. In a deeply alarming op-ed on Sunday, the country’s 10 living former Pentagon chiefs issued a strong warning that Trump involving the armed forces in his challenge to the election results would “take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory,” and demanded acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller and other officials “refrain from any political actions that undermine the results of the election or hinder the success of the new team.”
“We call upon them, in the strongest terms, to do as so many generations of Americans have done before them,” the former Defense chiefs wrote in the Washington Post. “This final action is in keeping with the highest traditions and professionalism of the U.S. armed forces, and the history of democratic transition in our great country.”
It was an unprecedented joint statement, signed by officials who served both Democratic and Republican administrations, including Jim Mattis and Mark Esper, two former Trump Defense secretaries, and came amid revelations that the president explicitly pressed election officials in Georgia to manufacture enough votes to undo his loss there. His attempt to strongarm Brad Raffensperger into falsifying the state’s election results, a recording of which was also published by the Post Sunday, underscored the extraordinary lengths to which he will go in his desperate attempt to hang on to the White House: If he’s willing to threaten the Georgia secretary of state with prosecution if he doesn’t “find” 11,780 votes to reverse Biden’s win, what else might he be capable of?
“Grateful they did this,” former Trump national security official Miles Taylor wrote of the former Defense chiefs’ op-ed. “Very alarmed that they had to.”
The publication of the op-ed, whose signatories also included former vice president Dick Cheney, was prompted by a piece by David Ignatius in the Post last month that reported government officials fear “Trump could invoke the Insurrection Act to mobilize the military” and use the armed forces to re-run the election in states he lost, as Flynn suggested on the pro-Trump network Newsmax in December. “When the David Ignatius piece came out, that was alarming,” former undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman, who organized the piece, told Politico. But it was more than just the Ignatius column; Edelman also suggested that the former officials felt compelled to issue the warning based on what they had heard from people still in the Pentagon.
“When you are a former senior official, people you know are still there, you hear stuff,” Edelman told Politico. “I’d heard things that were eerily similar to what was in the Ignatius column.”
It’s been hard not to feel concerned over the past month, with Flynn hanging around the Oval Office and Miller, the current acting Pentagon chief, stunning his own staff by abruptly ceasing cooperation with the Biden transition team. One rather hopes that there’s a less ominous explanation for it all—and, indeed, there’s every likelihood that the two weeks and change until Inauguration Day will pass with little more than a lot of bluster from Trump and his gang of shameful cronies. But the Pentagon chiefs’ warning makes clear that Americans’ alarm about what Trump may try is warranted, and must be taken seriously as he becomes ever more desperate in his final days of power.
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