White House

Remember the Failed Coup Attempt against Trump

Then-president Donald Trump and General Mark Milley speak at the 119th Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia, Pa., December 8, 2018. (Jim Young/Reuters)
Despite many inherent difficulties, some military leaders showed apparent willingness to support radical calls to resist the president.

In my December 2017 column for the Providence Journal, I asked, not altogether rhetorically: “Is Trump the target of a coup attempt?” To the consternation of many of my friends and colleagues, I answered in the affirmative. I argued that if military officers had done to President Obama some of the things that members of the intelligence community (IC) had done to President Trump, they would have been denounced as conspirators seeking to undermine the actions of a duly elected president, and thus enemies of civilian control of the military and the Constitution itself. Commentators would have called their actions what they were: an attempted coup against a duly elected president.

But there was little condemnation of the IC conspirators. Indeed, they were treated as brave, stalwart patriots putting country above politics in an effort to save the nation from the dangerous actions of an irresponsible president. They were true defenders of the national interest whose actions deserved praise.

That this sort of activity on the part of the IC was ongoing was confirmed by a prominent member of the intelligence brotherhood who acknowledged that Trump was right to believe that intelligence agencies were out to get him. In an interview with Politico’s Susan Glasser, Michael Morell, a former deputy director of the CIA (and twice acting director), conceded that the IC’s hostility to Trump had led its leadership to abandon its traditional nonpartisanship. In August 2016, Morell, who had retired in 2013, penned New York Times op-ed praising Hillary Clinton and calling Trump a danger to the nation.

Of course, I was not the first to use the word “coup” when it came to Trump. That honor belongs to Georgetown Law School professor Rosa Brooks, the author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, who wrote in Foreign Policy, right after his inauguration:

Trump’s first week as president has made it all too clear: Yes, he is as crazy as everyone feared. . . . [A] possibility [for removing Trump from office] is one that until recently I would have said was unthinkable in the United States of America: a military coup, or at least a refusal by military leaders to obey certain orders.

A senior Pentagon appointee from 2009 to 2011, she continued that, for the first time, she could “imagine plausible scenarios in which senior military officials might simply tell the president: ‘No, sir. We’re not doing that.’”

If published reports are to be believed, coup talk is still a thing with some inside the Beltway. The most shocking claim is that General Mark Milley, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, feared that President Trump was orchestrating a coup to keep himself in office. According to reports, Milley said, “They may try [to stage a coup], but they’re not going to f***ing succeed. . . . They may try . . . but you can’t do this without the military. . . . You can’t do this without the CIA and the FBI. We’re the guys with the guns.”

As Gerard Baker wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, sympathetic reporters have apparently cast General Milley as “the hero-soldier of . . . a real-life movie in which he saves the nation from — I think I have this right — World War III, a coup d’état and the desecration of the Constitution.” Of course the movie that Baker has in mind is Seven Days in May, the 1964 film that describes a military plot to remove the president from office.

In Seven Days in May, President Jordan Lyman has negotiated a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union, a treaty that does not sit well with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General James Mattoon Scott, who, in conjunction with right-wing Republicans and a prominent conservative broadcaster, seeks to seize the government.

Colonel “Jiggs” Casey, an officer on Scott’s staff and an admirer of the general, grows suspicious and alerts the president. At one point, Lyman asks Casey his opinion of the treaty, to which Casey replies that he thinks it’s dangerous, but it’s not the military’s role to make the final decision. “So you stand with the Constitution?” Lyman says to Casey. In the end, the Constitution prevails, although not by much.

In Seven Days in May, the president is clearly a weak sister who does not trust the military, and vice versa. When the film appeared, it was only a little more than a decade since Harry Truman had fired General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. John F. Kennedy had more recently fired General Edwin Walker for his extreme anti-communist rhetoric, and Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s secretary of defense, and Air Force general Curtis LeMay had clashed repeatedly during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The military was considered by many liberals as a right-wing bastion, and civilian control was a cornerstone of the liberalism of the time.

Now let’s look at what we might call “One Day in January.” Because some observers don’t approve of Trump, liberals such as Ms. Brooks now look to the military to keep the president in check. In this version of the military vs. the president, Trump is the villain, and apparently General Milley plays the role of Jiggs Casey, defending the Constitution against Trump’s brown-shirt supporters as they engage in an armed insurrection.

The breach of Capitol security on January 6 was a disgrace, but it fell far short of insurrection. Indeed, the more hyperbolic accounts of the day’s events have been falling apart for some time. Questions remain about why security was so lax and about video showing Capitol Police letting protesters into the building. Convictions and sentencing of those who have been charged are nothing like what we would expect for armed insurrectionists. A more honest description of January 6 is a political protest that got out of control.

But what is most interesting about the reaction to January 6 is that many who have claimed that President Trump wanted to unleash the military against “peaceful protesters” last summer now seem perfectly willing to deploy the military against those the Biden administration deems hostile to its goals — even treasonous. Apparently the holders of this sentiment include General Milley, who has been quoted disparaging Trump supporters.

Did General Milley have any evidence that Trump was planning a coup? Not according to any published reports. Indeed, General Milley’s actions themselves are more consistent with a coup, one along the lines of Seven Days in May. According to reports, he told aides that a “retired military buddy” had called him on Election Night to say, “You represent the stability of this republic.” This is, at a minimum, praetorianism.

From the time of Augustus Caesar until that of Constantine, a corps of soldiers known as the Praetorian Guard protected the Roman emperor. Over time, the Praetorians became the real power in Rome, appointing and deposing emperors at will. In our time, praetorianism has come to mean despotic military rule, something associated with countries where the army is the real power behind the government. Praetorianism would seem to be incompatible with republican government.

But the rules seem to be different for Trump. During his presidency we became accustomed to reports of both active-duty and retired officers excoriating President Trump in terms that would have drawn condemnation, if not disciplinary action, had they been uttered by officers about President Obama. Of course, the response to the claim that the military overreached during the Trump presidency is that they were acting in the best interests of the country, but these are the same people who invoke the Constitution as a justification for their actions. What exactly is the “generals’ Constitution”?

Based on the comments of many senior officers during the disorders of last summer, it’s hard to say. Indeed, the relationship between the Constitution and civil–military norms is a missing piece of U.S. civil–military relations.

In my experience as both a serving officer and a professor in the field of professional military education, the Constitution was treated as a “given,” with no need for any further elucidation. Accordingly, I have found that most officers know little about the Constitution and the constitutional basis of national security. That was very apparent in the comments from many retired officers about the end game of the Trump administration.

How far we have come since 1993, when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, was roundly condemned for getting out of his military “lane” by publicly opposing — in the pages of the New York Times and Foreign Affairs — the plans of the newly elected president, Bill Clinton, for humanitarian intervention in the Balkans. Powell was also criticized for continuing his resistance by constantly overstating the military requirements and carefully orchestrating leaks to the media about the risks of intervention. Yet here we are today with people suggesting that the military ought to do to Trump what Powell was criticized for doing to Clinton.

Even those most vociferously opposed to President Trump must ask themselves whether it is a good idea for active and retired military officers to form a phalanx around the duly elected president “for the good of the country.” Do we really want to normalize the view that the military is the protector of republican government? If so, we have moved perilously close to accepting praetorianism, a concept at war with the very idea of republican government. If that is the generals’ Constitution, patriotic Americans should want no part of it.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national-security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.

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