Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN
Updated: Thu, 15 Jul 2021 13:41:53 GMT
The most chilling implication from new reports that America's top military officer feared Donald Trump would try to order the armed forces to stage a coup is not how close the nation came to a post-election disaster last year.
It's the extreme danger that the US system of government, Constitution and cherished freedoms would face if an ex-President even now trying to revive his demagogic political career ever gets anywhere near the Oval Office again.
In the latest staggering glimpse into Trump's crazed, final days in office from a flurry of new books, it emerged Wednesday that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley was so shaken by Trump's refusal to concede defeat that he feared he might attempt a coup or other illegal gambit to stay in power.
Milley saw himself and the armed forces as a bulwark against any presidential mutiny against the Constitution and the nearly two-and-a-half centuries of democratic transfers of power.
"They may try, but they're not going to f**king succeed," Milley told his deputies, according to excerpts of the book "I Alone Can Fix It" by Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, which was obtained by CNN ahead of its release next Tuesday.
Milley saw Trump as the "classic authoritarian leader with nothing to lose," the authors wrote, but he told subordinates: "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."
In the end, Trump did not seek to turn the military on the American people or stage the most alarming showdown in living memory between a modern commander-in-chief and top military brass. But that seasoned military officers thought it was a real possibility and hatched a plan for rolling resignations to thwart Trump's autocratic impulses underscores the ex-President's extraordinary instability. Their preparations raised the specter that the uniformed military was ready to act to protect democracy and the rule of law from a civilian commander-in-chief in a reversal of normal Constitutional order -- furthering an impression repeatedly left by Trump himself that he was unfit to ever be President.
There can be little doubt that if he is ever again in a position of supreme power, the twice-impeached former President would be similarly erratic and lawless as he was in office. His behavior since returning to private life proves it.
New details of his past malfeasance come as Trump and his supporters actively seek to whitewash the truth of the insurrection that he incited against the US Capitol as Congress was certifying President Joe Biden's victory on January 6. The former President still has most of the Washington Republican Party -- which acted to excuse his assault on democracy -- in thrall to his personality cult. Millions of his voters believe his lies about non-existent voter fraud spread by propagandistic right-wing media networks.
Trump is, meanwhile, moving to tighten his grip over national elections by effectively installing acolytes in positions of power in state GOP parties as local Republican legislators pass laws making it harder for Democrats to vote that also weaken non-partisan control of elections, which could make them easier to steal in the future.
The new account also raises even more questions about senior Republican leaders' attitude toward Trump. Given the close links between Capitol Hill and the top echelons of the military, it is impossible to believe that Milley's testimony in the book will come as a surprise to congressional leaders or that they did not understand his fears in real time. Even if they didn't know, the fact that the GOP is still protecting, elevating and preparing to follow Trump into the 2022 midterm elections suggests even greater complicity with his offenses against democracy.
If the 2024 GOP nominating contest were taking place now, Trump would be the favorite, and he is giving every sign that he may indeed run for the White House again, meaning the idea of a return to power is not out of the question -- even if new evidence of a despotic temperament might harm his chances in a national election.
His grip on the Republican Party was underlined, again, with the news Thursday that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy will meet with the former President in New Jersey.
The inevitable Trump defense
The authors interviewed Trump for more than two hours. But his allies are sure to accuse them and the media of lying about his record, and officers like Milley of grandstanding, polishing their place in history and bearing grudges against the former commander-in-chief.
The detail in the book leaves a strong impression that Milley cooperated with the authors. But it doesn't follow that he is just seeking to burnish his own legend. Such accounts are often a way of making clear exactly what happened -- with a thin veneer of deniability for non-partisan military officers. And the armed forces remain one of the few institutions in American life to retain broad public respect.
Milley will not publicly address the issues raised in the book, a defense official close to him told CNN. But the official didn't dispute that during the last weeks and months of the Trump administration, Milley went to extraordinary lengths to protect the country.
"He's not going to sit in silence while people try to use the military against Americans," the official said.
Furthermore, Trump's behavior as depicted here is familiar from other new accounts of how a defeated President lashed out like a toppling dictator late last year. In those books, which back up contemporary reporting, including by CNN, Trump comes across as delusional, self-pitying, desperate, angry and vindictive, seeking to save his political skin while ignoring the democratic will of voters, all while negligently refusing to deal with the real emergency -- the murderous and worsening coronavirus pandemic that would claim its 400,000th victim before he left office in January.
The books and media accounts are sketching the kind of historical record that Trump's pliant Republican allies on Capitol Hill sought to prevent by killing off a bipartisan plan for an independent commission into the January 6 insurrection.
The new accounts add to a staggering anecdotal, journalistic, legal and political narrative -- augmented by Trump's own public inflammatory remarks and actions -- of the most aberrant and dangerous presidency of modern times and maybe ever.
Still, if there is one reassuring aspect of the latest account, it is that the military was well aware of the potential danger posed by Trump and the compliant political aides he installed in the White House after systematically driving out professional civil servants, diplomats and former military and intelligence officers -- the so-called adults who, early on, tried to contain his wild instincts. And as well as the military, other institutions -- including the courts and even the Justice Department under an Attorney General William Barr, who often did Trump's political bidding -- stood firm against his attempts to steal the election. Their example casts a poor light on the democratically-elected Republican lawmakers who refused to do their duty to hold another branch of government to account and to protect the Constitution.
The plan of the Joint Chiefs
The most surprising revelation from Leonnig and Rucker, who cite friends, lawmakers and colleagues of Milley, was that the Joint Chiefs discussed a plan to resign, one-by-one, rather than carry out orders from Trump that they considered to be illegal, dangerous or ill-advised.
Such a sequence would have precipitated the most serious civil-military crisis and chain-of-command disruption in decades, a fact that underscores how seriously the top brass took the possibility of a revolutionary moment.
Milley was concerned that personnel moves that put Trump acolytes in positions of power at the Pentagon and raised alarm in Washington at the time, including the firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper, were sinister omens.
"Milley told his staff that he believed Trump was stoking unrest, possibly in hopes of an excuse to invoke the Insurrection Act and call out the military," Leonnig and Rucker reported.
Rucker and Leonnig interviewed more than 140 sources for the book, though most were given anonymity to speak candidly. Milley is quoted extensively and comes off in a positive light as someone who tried to keep democracy alive after receiving a warning from an old friend who is not named.
"What they are trying to do here is overturn the government," the friend said, according to the authors. "This is all real, man. You are one of the few guys who are standing between us and some really bad stuff."
Milley apologized after being seen as too close to Trump in June 2020, when, wearing military fatigues, he joined the President in a controversial photo-op after protesters were cleared from the square outside the White House.
But according to the new book, he feared that the President would try to fire FBI Director Christopher Wray and CIA Director Gina Haspel in order to solidify his control over the intelligence services.
Such a scenario was widely feared late last year. Though it did not happen, Trump did have past form in this area, having fired former FBI Director James Comey, before going on television to say he did it because of the Russia investigation.
In retrospect, the period following the election -- one of the most harrowing in the modern history of the United States given Trump's trashing of democracy and the sacking of the US Capitol by his supporters -- was even more terrifying behind the scenes.
But events since have shown that the danger did not pass when Trump left the White House on the morning of January 20. In fact, a new threat is rising given the still vast political influence of a modern American demagogue.