The Military-Intelligence Complex

Then-CIA Director John Brennan (left) and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testify on Capitol Hill in 2014. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

The generals and spy chiefs entering the political arena to slam Trump forget that voters chose him — and not them.

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The generals and spy chiefs entering the political arena to slam Trump forget that voters chose him — and not them.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE N ot long after a number of generals and admirals recently weighed in with renewed criticism of the president in orchestrated unison, presidential candidate Joe Biden seemed giddy at their effort. After breezily asserting that “this president is going to try to steal this election,” Biden then charged additionally that Trump might not depart peacefully after losing the election .

In other words, according to Biden, Trump would either steal an election, claim he won, and then not leave after really losing it, or he would clearly lose it and then refuse to vacate the White House.

But Biden bragged that he was not worried, now that retired generals had “ripped the skin off of Trump,” and thus could be counted on as muscle by the new president Biden:

I was so damn proud. You have four chiefs of staff coming out and ripping the skin off of Trump, and you have so many rank-and-file military personnel saying, “Whoah, we’re not a military state. This is not who we are.”

Biden then offered the warning, “I promise you, I’m absolutely convinced they will escort him from the White House with great dispatch.”

Biden is, of course, increasingly incoherent. Nonetheless, when he cites “four chiefs of staff,” he is referring to four former chairmen of the joint chiefs of staff and now retired generals and admirals — Retired Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, Retired Army General Martin Dempsey, Retired Air Force General Richard Myers, and Retired Army General Colin Powell — who have publicly criticized Trump’s notice that he will use federal troops if necessary to restore calm.

So in his use of the pronoun “they,” Biden apparently counts as his enforcers two groups of the military: One is the “four chiefs of staff” or retired generals who have ripped Trump’s skin off; the other group is the currently serving “rank-and-file military personnel.” And together “they” will escort the cheating Trump and do so “with great dispatch.”

The logic is twisted but seems to suggest that retired generals who come out to criticize the current elected president may have to be pressed into action by Biden to enforce the results of an election. Ponder the theoretical interpretations that the addled Biden has drawn from the recent “revolt of the generals.” If Biden continues with this logic and alleges, after the November election (as did Hillary Clinton), that Trump “stole” the election and thus the vote is fraudulent, then he can decide that Trump could be reelected only illegitimately. He apparently believes he has the support of the military, active and retired, to rid us of the interloper. This is preposterous, but it is a preposterousness that the retired generals themselves have spawned, because their current crazy talk seems not so crazy to a crazy Biden.

Remember, this nonsense about Trump either stealing an election or refusing to return to private life after losing an election also arises in an ironic context. Disclosures mount that outgoing Vice President Biden himself thought that he and his administration had a right to surveil the Trump campaign and presidential transition. Biden himself requested the unmasking of an American citizen in subsequent intelligence transcripts; the name had been redacted and was then illegally leaked to the press. Biden was part of an Obama team that approved spying on General Michael Flynn, Trump’s designated national-security adviser — all justified on the notion of “Russian collusion” that at that time had already been debunked by the Obama administration’s own FBI.

At about the same time as Biden’s “ripping the skin off” braggadocio, the current chairmen of the joint chiefs of staff, General Mark Milley apologized to the country for appearing in a “photo-op” with his commander in chief. Milley had come under intense criticism from both dissident retired military and the media for standing next to Trump at a time when the president had ordered federal troops prepare to maintain calm near the White House:

I should not have been there. My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics. As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.

Mackubin Thomas Owens has written a lengthy analysis and critique of General Milley’s apology, concluding that the walk-back could easily have been done in consultation with the commander in chief rather than publicized. I would add that Milley’s assertion that what he did was improper may or may not be accurate. But if one were to indict all the previous chairmen of the joint chiefs who have appeared alongside their presidents to lend political gravitas to controversial political decisions, then we would have had lots of defrocked chairmen.

Moreover, Milley seems to be emphasizing a regulation that is rarely cited and almost never enforced — at a time when the equally unenforced regulations prohibiting even retired generals and admirals from disparaging the current commander in chief are also inert. The relevant regulations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice are more explicit about what constitutes clearly unacceptable behavior for retired generals than are the rules governing presidential photo-ops with chairmen of the joint chiefs.

The point, then, is that we either ignore these technical regulations that apply to high-ranking military officers, or we do not. But we do not pick and choose, for political purposes, when to apply them — in the manner that the Obama Justice Department began its harassment of incoming national-security adviser Michael Flynn on grounds that he had violated the ossified and never successfully prosecuted Logan Act.

After all, it was not as if Trump without precedent had ordered thousands of troops into the streets to quell violent protestors, the way President George H. W. Bush did, following long-accepted precedents, in 1992. In that year, Bush characterized the racially sensitive riots in Los Angeles, over the beating of Rodney King, as mob-like: “What we saw last night and the night before in Los Angeles is not about civil rights. . . . It’s not a message of protest. It’s been the brutality of a mob, pure and simple.”

Accordingly, as commander in chief, Bush ordered 4,500 Marine combat troops into the city to quell the violence. And he added of the order, “Federal effort will not be driven by mob violence, but by respect for due process and law.”

At the time of the 1992 riots, Bush’s chairman of the joint chiefs, who oversaw the dispatch of the federal Marines into Los Angeles, was General Colin Powell. Powell, who has now criticized Trump for even considering the use federal troops, reportedly told Bush of his request for federal troops to quell a domestic disturbance, “All you’ve got to do is say it.”

There are two other concerns. For the first time in modern memory, lots of media venues and essayists have openly discussed the possibility that the unpopular president might be the object of a coup, warnings issued both prior to and after Trump’s election, from both Americans and foreign observers, and then again in reaction to recent declarations of disdain from the retired generals and admirals.

What is striking about these admonitions are not specific charges that Trump has violated the Constitution — indeed, we are daily reading more evidence of the Obama administration’s efforts to sabotage a campaign, a presidential transition, and the early months of the new Trump presidency. Instead, we hear rants that Trump is divisive, and variously uncouth, rude, or profane in a manner the nation has not seen since perhaps Andrew Jackson, whose rustic decorum also outraged the bipartisan political establishment of the age.

Yet being dubbed obnoxious or off-putting by a retired general, or pushing policies deemed wrong or divisive, is not a reason to prematurely remove a president, or to virtue-signal that he must in some vague way be stopped. None of these self-described constitutional experts seem to realize that our system of government and laws was intended to protect not messianic figures whom we worship but unpopular people and their speech that we don’t like.

It is not just retired military officers who voice barely veiled concerns that Trump is beyond the pale and has wrecked the Constitution and should leave “the sooner, the better” (as retired admiral William McRaven put it in 2019). High-ranking intelligence and investigatory officials under the guise of constitutionalism have deemed Donald Trump and his administration, at least in their own individual exalted estimations, existential threats that require extra-constitutional means to defeat.

Rarely have the former head of the CIA (John Brennan), the top echelon of the FBI (James Comey and Andrew McCabe), and the former director of national intelligence (James Clapper) — none of them elected officials — become the subject of criminal investigations by federal attorneys for a number of possible federal crimes, whose essence was aborting a presidential transition and later a presidency.

In 2018, the retired director of the CIA tweeted of the president, in the larger context of the now repudiated Russian hoax and, in particular, the firing of Andrew McCabe from the FBI, “When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. . . . America will triumph over you” (emphasis added). Brennan, remember, prior to Trump’s presidency, had admitted to lying under oath to Congress on two occasions.

And the reaction from formerly high government officials to Brennan’s serial and quasi-threats of “triumphing” over the elected president? Former U.N. ambassador Samantha Power tweeted a snarky assent, “Not a good idea to piss off John Brennan.”

That echoed Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer’s earlier warning to the supposedly untutored outsider president: “Let me tell you: You take on the intelligence community — they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.”

As with Joe Biden’s giddiness about the thought of retired generals helping him remove a supposedly seditious Trump, no one paid any attention to Schumer’s warning of an active resistance. But perhaps it will prove to have been a prescient omen, once federal attorney John Durham apprises the nation of his findings.

Fairly or not, there has been a widespread wink-and-nod assumption in the media that the military-intelligence complex finds the president repugnant. That personal animosity is fine if that is their wont. But what is not fine is their effort to enter the political arena and try to remove or cripple a president by using the powers and influence of their offices, present or recently past. When a retired general calls the president a Mussolini, or when an FBI director hires a foreign national and contracted employee of another presidential candidate to find dirt on her opponent, then we have grounds to worry.

Our federal officials — both active and retired with access to intelligence and classified information, and in some cases subject to federal regulations — in the constant back-and-forth argument of who is really abusing and who seeking to save the Constitution, have forgotten that there always remains one constant: The president has been elected by the people in an election and is subject to their audit, whether through another election, or impeachment and conviction, or ongoing legislative overrides and budgetary discipline.

Military officers, serving and retired, and intelligence officials, both active and retired, have not been elected. And they should try to keep that in mind when they venture to enter the political process and go well beyond mere criticism of someone whom the voters have chosen.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University; the author of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won; and a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness.
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