Ten days after the Associated Press called the election for Biden, cracks are finally beginning to emerge in the consensus that he will be allowed to take office without a fight. Trump, refusing to concede and incessantly tweeting about how he “WON THE ELECTION,” still controls the state apparatus—and, in league with the more sophisticated minds of Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is clearly preparing it to resist a transfer of power. Despite Biden’s own seeming denialism about this reality, the odds that he will actually be inaugurated on Jan. 20 are diminishing each day.
Barr made it clear that he has Trump’s back with his Nov. 9 order authorizing US Attorneys to pursue allegations of voting irregularities in the recent election—despite an admitted lack of evidence. Pompeo made a similar display of loyalty with his smirking quip the next day at a press conference: “There will be a smooth transition [dramatic pause] to a second Trump administration.” Veery funny, Mike.
So that’s the Justice Department (with its critical control of the FBI, Marshals Service and other police agencies) and State Department. Emily Murphy, head of the General Services Administration, the agency that oversees the transition process, has famously not signed off on an official declaration recognizing Biden’s victory—barring any cooperation with his team by the sitting administration. White House trade adviser Peter Navarro (an extremely bellicose figure despite his prosaic job title) told Fox News Nov. 13, “We are moving forward here at the White House under the assumption there will be a second Trump term.”
Purge at the Pentagon
The purge underway at the Defense Department (an odd thing to undertake in the lame duck period) is clearly aimed at getting the armed forces on Trump’s side as well. Defense Secretary Mark Esper was fired Nov. 9, replaced by Christopher Miller, formerly director of the National Counterterrorism Center. This was just the first blow.
The Nov. 13 CNN headline read: “Trump administration removes senior defense officials and installs loyalists, triggering alarm at Pentagon.” Among those vertiginously promoted are Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata, the new Pentagon policy director, who spent the past four years shilling for Trump as a Fox News commentator and notoriously baiting Obama as a “Muslim” and “terrorist.” Col. Douglas Macgregor, now senior advisor to Acting Secretary Miller, is another ultra-hardliner who has advocated instituting martial law at the US-Mexico border and for Border Patrol to “shoot people” to deter illegal crossings.
CNN’s commentary all too optimistically characterizes this as Trump “burning down the house on his way out the door.” Which leaves open the question of motive. Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT) of the House Intelligence Committee told MSNBC, “We are witnessing the decapitation of the American national security apparatus.” Which again raises the question of why, if the administration is really planning to cede power, bluster aside. An obvious answer presents itself: The admin isn’t planning to cede power, and Trump’s intransigence isn’t just bluster.
Ominously also purged was Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Energy Department agency that oversees production and maintenance of the nuclear warhead stockpile.
The last man standing from the old regime at the Pentagon is Mark Milley, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who (like Esper) had actually been on the scene during the June 1 assault on protesters in Lafayette Square by National Guard and Military Police troops—but later had the guts and humility to apologize and say “I should not have been there.” Notes a Nov. 10 commentary in the Washington Post: “It’s becoming clear that President Trump’s firing of Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper by tweet Monday was only the first step in an effort to remove the entire top Defense Department leadership team and replace it with officials loyal to the president. As more and more senior Pentagon officials lose their jobs, all eyes are on Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley, who has fallen out of favor with many inside the White House.”
When Milley goes, we may have crossed a proverbial Rubicon.
Democrats in denial
The Democratic leadership appears to be in denial. As David Sirota writes in a commentary for The Guardian:
[I]nstead of sounding the alarm, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris seem to have settled on a “nothing to see here” approach… [W]here is the call to action? Where is the activism? Where are requests for Democrats in the five Biden states with Republican legislatures to start pressuring their state lawmakers to commit to respecting the popular vote?
Biden may be calculating that any public pushback will only help Trump, and the best strategy is to try to starve the fraud allegations of attention… However, history suggests that it is pretty risky to bank on a passive strategy.
CNN’s Fareed Zakaria refreshingly broke Godwin’s Law by invoking Hitler’s “stab in the back” rhetoric as an analogy to Trump’s current “stop the steal” line. And Zakaria is wise enough to hedge when he states that despite such Trumpian tantrums, Biden will “almost certainly be inaugurated.”
We would argue that history does indeed demand an emphasis on the “almost.”
Plan A: the soft coup
Based on the evidence, what will be the mechanics of Trump’s effort to cling to power? We see a three-phase strategy, with contingencies arranged by the dictates of necessity.
Plan A, already in progress, is the judicial coup: keep an official outcome of the election gummed up in legal challenges and recounts until Dec. 14, when the Electoral College is scheduled to meet. Under the terms of the 12th Amendment, a deadlock or failure of the Electoral College by that date would throw the question to the House of Representatives—which is to vote by state delegations, not members, giving the Republicans a decisive advantage.
Or, before it gets to this point, Republican-controlled state legislatures in four states that went to Biden—Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—could intervene in the selection of electors. Thankfully, GOP leaders in these states have disavowed this strategy as violating state law and the will of the people. But will they be singing the same tune when it is crunch time next month? Certainly such a move would be a very bitter irony for those of us who called for electors to go “faithless” in 2016 and refuse to seat Trump.
These scenarios are not without precedent. The Electoral College has faltered and the election been thrown to Congress before—and each time, the political impacts were profound:
In the raucous election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied in the Electoral College; the House made Jefferson president and Burr VP. After the Louisiana Purchase, Burr bitterly plotted against Jefferson to establish an independent new country in the American West under his leadership—for which he would face treason charges.
In 1824, John Quincy Adams was elected by the House after he failed to win a majority in the Electoral College following a four-way race with Andrew Jackson, William Crawford and Henry Clay. Clay was then Speaker of the House and assumed the role of “kingmaker” to arrange Adams’ ascension to the White House in what the Jacksonians assailed as a “corrupt bargain.” Adams then made Clay secretary of state, but they both always insisted there was no deal. Betrayed, Jackson broke with the Democratic-Republicans, then the major opposition to Adams’ Federalists, to found the Democratic party, which catapulted him to the presidency in 1828 and is still with us today. (The Democratic-Republicans, after backing Clay’s unsuccessful bid to reclaim the presidency from Jackson in 1832, became the Whigs—which, after splitting over the issue of slavery, gave birth to the Republicans in 1854, bringing us the two-party system which persists today.)
In 1876, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won by one electoral vote over Democrat Samuel J. Tilden—but the returns from Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina and Oregon were in dispute. The House and Senate appointed a joint Electoral Commission which decided in favor of Hayes. However, there was a pay-off: On the defensive from Southern Democrats, Hayes ended Reconstruction and withdrew the last federal troops from the South—allowing the restoration of a white supremacist order there. This was the first step in the GOP’s long march to the right, and the party of Lincoln becoming the party of Trump.
Plan B: the hard coup
If the judicial or Congressional coup doesn’t work, Plan B is the plain old “coup” coup, so to speak—the old-school way, by force of arms. It has long been assumed that United States political culture is immune from the phenomenon. But military involvement in deciding this election has already been broached, and in the very organs of military policy.
Back in August, two retired Army officers ran an open letter to Gen. Milley on the military-affairs website Defense One, predicting what could ensue after the election:
The Democrat-led House of Representatives will certify the Electoral College results, which Mr. Trump will dismiss as fake news. The courts, flooded with cases from both Democrats and Mr. Trump’s legal team, will take months working through the docket, producing reasoned rulings that Trump will alternately appeal and ignore.
Then the clock will strike 12:01 PM, January 20, 2021, and Donald Trump will be sitting in the Oval Office. The street protests will inevitably swell outside the White House, and the ranks of Trump’s private army will grow inside its grounds. The speaker of the House will declare the Trump presidency at an end, and direct the Secret Service and Federal Marshals to remove Trump from the premises. These agents will realize that they are outmanned and outgunned by Trump’s private army, and the moment of decision will arrive.
At this moment of Constitutional crisis, only two options remain. Under the first, US military forces escort the former president from the White House grounds. Trump’s little green men, so intimidating to lightly armed federal law enforcement agents, step aside and fade away, realizing they would not constitute a good morning’s work for a brigade of the 82nd Airborne. Under the second, the US military remains inert while the Constitution dies. The succession of government is determined by extralegal violence between Trump’s private army and street protesters; Black Lives Matter Plaza becomes Tahrir Square.
As the senior military officer of the United States, the choice between these two options lies with you. In the Constitutional crisis described above, your duty is to give unambiguous orders directing US military forces to support the Constitutional transfer of power. Should you remain silent, you will be complicit in a coup d’état. You were rightly criticized for your prior active complicity in the president’s use of force against peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square. Your passive complicity in an extralegal seizure of political power would be far worse.
Tahrir Square is of course a reference to the Egyptian revolution of 2011. “Little green men” refers to Putin’s undercover military operatives in Ukraine. In the Trumpian context, this could mean either elements of the divided federal police forces or, even more ominously, federalized right-wing militias.
Thus far, there is little sign that Trump’s armed grassroots base is either effectively organized as a paramilitary force or under any effective means of command. However, both of these requisites could be coming into place, in the shadows, as you are reading this. Certainly, the “Million MAGA March” held this weekend in DC in support of Trump’s power-grab, while failing to mobilize anywhere near a million, offered such open displays of unabashed fascism (e.g. warnings to Blacks that “We’re coming for you”) that even Fox News had to blush.
In any case, the critical factor could well come down to whether or not Trump can get the Pentagon on his side. Until such time as Biden takes the oath of office, Trump remains the commander-in-chief. Troops are under no obligation to obey illegal orders. But again: History, even very recent history (Syria, Burma, Bosnia, etc) offers little reason for encouragement that they will fail to do so, even if we concede some validity to the questionable notion of “American exceptionalism.”
Plan C: hit the hustings
Trump’s last option, if the rational elements can possibly get through to him, is to step down without “conceding,” and spend the next four years holding rallies where he spews about how the presidency was stolen from him and he’s gonna get his in 2024.
This is, of course, the most favorable outcome—by far. But it will be more likely if there is widespread consciousness of the threat—and a political response from below. The more forthright and voluble that response—the clearer it is that Americans of progressive inclination are having none of this—the more likely that the rational elements around Trump will be able to get through to him, and that troops will find the courage to disobey illegal orders.
In the prelude to the election, the Transition Integrity Project, recently established to assess the looming dilemma, warned: “A show of numbers in the streets—and actions in the streets—may be decisive factors in determining what the public perceives as a just and legitimate outcome.”
So we must ask: Why is everybody so quiet?