Was there a coup in the last days of Trump’s administration?

During the period of turmoil just before and after the 2020 election, when an increasingly belligerent and angry Trump kept insisting that he could only lose if there was cheating and would not state that he would go along with the peaceful transfer of power if he was declared the loser, there was increasing alarm that he would try and stage a coup rather than leave office. I personally thought that this was unlikely and said so in June before the election and in November just after the election.

The reason for my skepticism was that in order to carry out a coup, Trump would need the support of the military and I could see absolutely no upside for the US military to get involved in such an attempt. Other than so-called palace coups where a group of insiders edge out a leader by some means and replace them with another insider, most coups require actions by the military to seize the major organs of power and the media, arrest opposition leaders, and patrol the streets to quell any nascent opposition. A simple cost-benefit analysis would tell the top US military brass to steer clear of any such move. The potential cost is very high, since if the coup attempt failed, all the officers would be charged with treason. The potential benefits are nowhere close to being worth the cost since the US military already does very well in terms of broad public support. The top military brass get treated very well and have all manner of desirable perks. Both major parties fall over themselves to see who can be more generous in funding the military, sometimes giving them even more than they ask. Why would they risk a very cushy gig by breaking all prior norms and coming down on one side, especially when that side is led by an utterly erratic, irrational, and narcissistic person like Trump? This situation is quite different from that in countries where successful coups have taken place, where the military thinks it has much to gain by taking over the government or aiding a politician in taking it over.

So the idea of a military coup in the US to keep Trump in power was, in my mind, always a nonstarter. But a demand from Trump to the military leaders to help him stage a coup was always a possibility and the only question was what form it would take and how they would ‘manage’ to avoid complying with any such outlandish request from Trump in his desperate last-minute efforts, since at least in theory they were bound to follow his orders, since he is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

The article in the New Yorker by Susan B. Glasser and Peter Baker, based on their book The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 (that I discussed in an earlier post) explains how they prepared for that. The article focuses on what was going on behind the scenes during that tumultuous period, focusing on the people in the military line of command, starting with Trump at the top, his defense secretary Mark Esper just below him, and then the chair of the joint chiefs of staff Mark Milley. In their conversations with each other, the people who were trying to manage Trump and get him to leave office peacefully used the phrase ‘land the plane safely’ as a euphemism for enabling the peaceful transfer of power.

The article provides good insight into how bureaucratic maneuvering goes on in Washington. As with all such reports that quote a lot from private conversations among the principals, it depends very much on who was talking to the reporters and one can gauge this from those whose actions and words are quoted in great detail and who come out of it favorably. In this case, it is clearly Esper and Milley who are the main sources and are portrayed as fighting to rein in Trump’s recklessness. The description of Esper’s role is particularly intriguing because he was seen as very much as a Trump yes-man, to the extent that he was referred to behind his back as ‘Yesper’.

Milley was appointed the chair of the joint chiefs’ of staff late in Trump’s term in the fall of 2019 Trump picked him for petty and shallow reasons, like the way he picks pretty much anyone. He chose Milley because the former defense secretary Jim Mattis whom Trump fired in December 2018, “could not stand [Milley], had no respect for him, and would not recommend him.”

The report says that Milley’s resistance began when he realized on June 1, 2020 that he had been outmaneuvered by Trump when protestors were cleared roughly from Lafayette Square for the purpose of Trump’s walk to a church to hold up a Bible for a photo op. Milley had initially walked with Trump dressed in full military dress uniform but halfway through the walk realized that he was being used as a prop to signal that the military supported Trump’s grandstanding. He decided that he should not be there, seemingly endorsing the military’s role in that fiasco. He quietly peeled away before they got to the church but the damage had been done and there were many photos of him marching with Trump. His presence was condemned by several retired generals who said that it was unseemly for the head of the military that had two-hundred thousand Black troops to be seen as crushing a racial justice protest.

On June 8th, Milley drafted several versions of letters of resignation and the one he liked best went as follows:

I regret to inform you that I intend to resign as your Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Thank you for the honor of appointing me as senior ranking officer. The events of the last couple weeks have caused me to do deep soul-searching, and I can no longer faithfully support and execute your orders as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is my belief that you were doing great and irreparable harm to my country. I believe that you have made a concerted effort over time to politicize the United States military. I thought that I could change that. I’ve come to the realization that I cannot, and I need to step aside and let someone else try to do that.

Second, you are using the military to create fear in the minds of the people—and we are trying to protect the American people. I cannot stand idly by and participate in that attack, verbally or otherwise, on the American people. The American people trust their military and they trust us to protect them against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and our military will do just that. We will not turn our back on the American people.

Third, I swore an oath to the Constitution of the United States and embodied within that Constitution is the idea that says that all men and women are created equal. All men and women are created equal, no matter who you are, whether you are white or Black, Asian, Indian, no matter the color of your skin, no matter if you’re gay, straight or something in between. It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jew, or choose not to believe. None of that matters. It doesn’t matter what country you came from, what your last name is—what matters is we’re Americans. We’re all Americans. That under these colors of red, white, and blue—the colors that my parents fought for in World War II—means something around the world. It’s obvious to me that you don’t think of those colors the same way I do. It’s obvious to me that you don’t hold those values dear and the cause that I serve.

And lastly it is my deeply held belief that you’re ruining the international order, and causing significant damage to our country overseas, that was fought for so hard by the Greatest Generation that they instituted in 1945. Between 1914 and 1945, 150 million people were slaughtered in the conduct of war. They were slaughtered because of tyrannies and dictatorships. That generation, like every generation, has fought against that, has fought against fascism, has fought against Nazism, has fought against extremism. It’s now obvious to me that you don’t understand that world order. You don’t understand what the war was all about. In fact, you subscribe to many of the principles that we fought against. And I cannot be a party to that. It is with deep regret that I hereby submit my letter of resignation.

Former CIA director and defense secretary Robert Gates advised Milley, Esper, and other Trump personnel who were thinking of quitting not to do so. He said that it would be more effective if they were fired.because that becomes a bigger story.

After Lafayette Square, Gates told both Milley and Esper that, given Trump’s increasingly erratic and dangerous behavior, they needed to stay in the Pentagon as long as they could. “If you resign, it’s a one-day story,” Gates told them. “If you’re fired, it makes it clear you were standing up for the right thing.” Gates advised Milley that he had another important card and urged him to play it: “Keep the chiefs on board with you and make it clear to the White House that if you go they all go, so that the White House knows this isn’t just about firing Mark Milley. This is about the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff quitting in response.”

There was a particular reason for Esper to try and stay on and that was the fear that Trump might use the troops for political reasons.

By law, the only person authorized to deploy troops other than the President is the Secretary of Defense. Esper was determined not to hand that power off to satraps such as Robert O’Brien, who had become Trump’s fourth and final national-security adviser, or Ric Grenell, a former public-relations man who had been serving as acting director of National Intelligence.

So they stayed on. However a week after the Lafayette square fiasco, Milley made a public apology for his presence at the photo-op in a speech he gave to the National Defense University. Esper also made a public repudiation of Trump’s idea of .using the military to subdue public protests. Trump was furious and both Esper and Milley expected to be fired any day.

A couple of days after the election was called for Biden, Trump fired Esper, an ominous sign that he was laying the groundwork for something by surrounding him with ultra-loyalists. They feared that Trump would concoct some action that was the equivalent of the Reichstag fire, such as bombing Iran to draw the US into some major conflict and then declare that a state of emergency existed that required him to remain at the helm. Milley apparently had a large number of backchannel communications with his counterparts in Iran, China, and other possible targets, telling them that they had nothing to fear from the US military and that they should ignore any bellicose rhetoric because it would not be followed by any actual action.

It seemed like the plane was going to be safely landed. And then January 6th happened with mobs storming the Capitol building and calling for the deaths of lawmakers including Trump’s own vice-president and they thought the plane was crashing and that Trump maybe had got his Reichstag moment. But as it turned out, order was restored and the immediate crisis passed.

Milley later reflected that it had been a near thing, failing largely because of the sheer incompetence of tTrump and his cronies.

Later, Milley would often think back to that awful day. “It was a very close-run thing,” the historically minded chairman would say, invoking the famous line of the Duke of Wellington after he had only narrowly defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Trump and his men had failed in their execution of the plot, failed in part by failing to understand that Milley and the others had never been Trump’s generals and never would be. But their attack on the election had exposed a system with glaring weaknesses. “They shook the very Republic to the core,” Milley would eventually reflect. “Can you imagine what a group of people who are much more capable could have done?”

So in one sense, a traditional coup was averted, in that the military did not intervene to stop the peaceful transfer of power. But in another sense, there was a sort of palace coup, even though the leader was not replaced, because a group of unelected people in the military and the cabinet deliberately carried out a concerted plan to thwart the elected president of the country. In the end Trump did leave office without asking the military to get involved in a plan to help him stay in power, so they were able to avoid facing the decision of what to do in such an event, such as refusing to carry out his orders or even restraining him.


  1. garnetstar says

    I am told that, of the many categories of coups, the one that Trump tried to carry out is called a self-coup, in which you disrupt ordinary systems in order to increase your power or to remain in power. So, I’d say yes, he attempted a coup.

  2. Holms says

    A simple cost-benefit analysis would tell the top US military brass to steer clear of any such move.

    Not to mention their own principles, their respect for the constitution and rule of law, their own desire for peaceful transfer, etc. etc.

  3. jenorafeuer says

    Well, yes; but the point is that even somebody with no morals or ethics aside from self-advancement should be convinced that going along with a coup was almost guaranteed to be a bad idea. All that wold be needed would be an understanding of reality and consequences, something that Trump and most of his political appointees lack,, but which the high-ranking military officials should have had.

    You can be a complete sociopath and do well as a military officer, but you need to be a relatively high-functioning one to get into the top brass.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    Milley & Co just had a dry run: quite likely the generals in the Kremlin will soon have to face such decisions directly.

  5. John Morales says

    One aspect is that no-one really believed how far Trump would go at dishonoring the office and taking advantage that a lot of the process was mediated on trust.
    By the time it was obvious, the rot had set in.

    So, precedent is there. Next time, it won’t catch people by surprise.

  6. another stewart says

    As I see it there were three attempts at a coup.
    First an attempt at a judicial coup -- seeking a corrupt judge to selectively throw out votes in swing states and turn the electoral college.
    Second an attempt at a leglislative/executive coup -- seeking corrupt state officials and leglislaturists to overturn elections in swing states.
    Third an attempt at a procedural coup in Congress backed by intimidation from a crowd-sourced insurrection. We might have been lucky that the Secret Service didn’t allow Trump to drive to the Capitol.

  7. StonedRanger says

    There was a kook in the last days of his administration, but he was there since the day he was elected. Oh, you said coup, my bad.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *