As Trump’s final hours approach, the US military worries whether he’ll really leave.
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The final countdown has begun, but the military is worried about what Donald Trump and his followers might do to cling to power. Trumpists have called for a “Million Militia March” on Washington and state capitols to prevent Biden’s inauguration and — some even imagine — trigger a civil war.
These days, as we have seen, virtually anything is possible. Realistically, nothing may happen, or if it does, it may be modest and utterly inconsequential. Nonetheless, security planners are wisely taking no chances.
An insider attack? “That would be unimaginable.” — Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli
But is it? The job of security planners and intelligence officials is to gather information, to assess risks, and to imagine the unimaginable. Already, the US Navy’s investigation service has arrested an Army Reservist who participated in the Capitol insurrection. He had a high-level security clearance for access to a military depot where weapons and ammunition are stored. The Army wants to know how many more like him might be out there or coming to Washington.
The FBI is reviewing the National Guard troops assigned to DC for subversive sentiments. Posts on right-wing platforms from military bases are a top priority. In a briefing Monday, the FBI warned that groups that attacked the Capitol, like QAnon, Three Percenters, Oathkeepers, and Proud Boys, have been discussing infiltrating the National Guard. At press time, the Army had removed two National Guard members from inauguration duty.
Nonetheless, the acting secretary of defense said “there is no intelligence” that active-duty military personnel pose an “inside threat” to the inauguration. Other Pentagon officials are not so sure; they are worried that Trump may yet make some last-ditch effort to stay, that a show of leaving may disguise a plot to return. Here’s why:
Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives for inciting supporters who overran the Capitol on January 6 in an attempt to stop Congress from confirming Joe Biden as his successor. But no trial by the Senate is yet placed on the Senate calendar. Unless he resigns at the last minute, Trump remains president, chief executive, and commander in chief of the armed forces until Biden takes the oath of office at 12:01 p.m. on January 20.
He’s “deranged, unhinged, dangerous.” — Speaker Nancy Pelosi
That shrinking interregnum leaves the high command of the US Armed Forces so worried about the behavior of their increasingly desperate commander in chief that they issued an extraordinary warning on January 12 to the nearly 2 million serving members and reserves under their command.1610487019
The letter was most unusual but prompted by the equally unprecedented act of insurrection against Congress and the rule of law itself by a president who has acted as if he is above the law, a president whose role model, Richard Nixon, declared after his impeachment and resignation: “Well, when the president does it… that means that it is not illegal.”
And so Trump acted with impunity, protected by a Department of Justice rule that no president can be prosecuted while in office and, even if impeached, could pardon his family, friends, contributors, co-conspirators, and accomplices, no matter the crime. But even Attorney General William Barr, no doubt sensing that Trump would barge ahead with efforts to overturn the election, had abandoned his post for the holidays, leaving the chief executive to his own advice and devices, and to ponder whether to resign in return for a pardon granted by his successor, or tor stay, press on, and if thwarted, pardon himself. Why not?
Knowledgeable sources who spoke with WhoWhatWhy suspect that’s why one notable signature was missing from the chiefs’ letter telling the troops to stand down: The commander of US Special Operations, who now answers directly to the secretary of defense, not the Joint Chiefs. If Trump were to call in troops to suppress — or to provoke — an insurrection that would allow Trump to declare martial law and execute a coup d’etat, Special Operations would be the likely candidates.
This report is based on interviews with active-duty and retired military, security and intelligence officers, and sources in Congress and within the Biden transition team. They are actively “gaming” scenarios in which Trump might try to stay in power. They have asked to remain anonymous but confirm stories published elsewhere, indicated below, in which their peers expressed similar concerns.
One such scenario is a threat made by paramilitary groups who participated in the assault on Congress: The fear is that they would mount additional armed attacks on Washington in the days leading up to the inauguration and against statehouses in all the states. That threat prompted the mobilization of an overwhelming show of force in the District of Columbia and environs, which contrasts significantly with the porous defense of the Capitol on January 6; possibly as a result of this show of force, no assaults have materialized.
Biden’s transition team anticipated some of these challenges before the election:
“Military and law enforcement leaders need to be particularly attuned to the possibility that partisan actors will seek to manipulate or misuse their coercive powers for inappropriate political ends. Concretely, at both the state and federal level, partisan actors (including President Trump himself) may seek to deploy law enforcement, national guard troops and potentially active duty military (under the Insurrection Act) to “restore order” in a manner that primarily benefits one candidate, or to participate in efforts that interrupt the process to count ballots. Military and law enforcement leaders need to plan now for these possibilities to avoid becoming unwitting pawns in a partisan battle.”
A City Under Siege
An estimated 25,000 troops drawn from the National Guard of several states have been summoned to Washington. They have erected roadblocks, fencing, and concentric defensive perimeters around the Capitol for the inauguration which the Department of Homeland Security has declared a National Special Security Event (NSSE), extended through the end of the month. Parks are closed, traffic restricted, and vehicles are subject to search. Also, an “air-defense exclusion zone” in effect since 2001 and enhanced since 2007, has now been elevated to a “national air defense zone” — meaning aircraft that fail to identify themselves may be shot down.
In a gesture of supposed reassurance that itself prompts concerns, Secretary of the Air Force Barbara M. Barrett announced that she’s leaving her command the day before the big event to allow the incoming president to appoint his own team.
The Pentagon has ordered an investigation of its own response to what happened on January 6. But that only raises the key question: Who will watch the watchmen?
Imagine this scene. The stage is set. All eyes are on the president-elect as he enters the portico. All it would take, thoughtful observers agree, is a single missile fired from an attack helicopter or fighter, perhaps a mortar, a rocket-propelled grenade, or small wire-guided missile like those used all over the world by US forces. Or drones armed with explosives that might zip from a building outside the perimeter over the fences and into the portico where the new president awaits the oath, ready to move to the White House — an executive mansion abandoned by his predecessor who waits out of sight at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.
The agency directly responsible for protecting the inauguration is the Secret Service, in coordination with the Department of Homeland Security, the US Capitol Police, and the federalized National Guard commanders who answer to the secretary of the army, and he to the secretary of defense. Notably, all these agencies failed to protect the Capitol and Congress on January 6.
All answer in turn to the president as commander in chief, Donald Trump, denounced by Speaker Pelosi as “deranged, unhinged, dangerous,” until Biden is sworn in. And therein lies the bigger, deeper problem: The chain of command has been truncated, key links removed and replaced with Trump’s loyalists.
Any military action would technically allow Trump to declare a national security emergency, deploy troops to suppress the inevitable demonstrations against a contrived war, perhaps even declare martial law, rule by decree through secret Presidential Executive Action Directives and executive orders pre-authorized by Congress, and thereby delay or suspend Biden’s inauguration and an impeachment trial in the Senate.
Missing Links in the Chain of Command
The Acting Secretary of Defense is Christopher C. Miller, appointed by Trump to replace Mark Esper on November 12 while Congress was adjourned — thus, no hearings were scheduled for his confirmation. Unless he quits before January 20, he will be there until Biden takes office and installs a nominee. Who sits in that chair matters.
Last summer, when state governors refused to ask Trump to send National Guard units to supplement their own forces in faceoffs with Black Lives Matter protesters, Esper resisted Trump’s attempts to invoke the Insurrection Act and dispatch federal troops to suppress demonstrations.
Trump had tested his commanders’ loyalty by having Barr disperse a peaceful protest in Lafayette Square with chemical gas, rubber bullets, helicopters, and baton-wielding police in unmarked uniforms from federal agencies, then marching the military men from the White House gates across the park to a church just for Trump to hold up a Bible and declare that he would use massive force to protect federal property. No matter that he had not been invited to the church, or that it was not federal or even public property. For Trump, a photo-op, the image of the moment, was all that mattered, not the law.
But that’s not how others saw it: The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, later recoiled at his own image — strutting behind the president and his daughter in her thousand-dollar pumps. His fellow chiefs warned him that the incident would be highly controversial and divisive, and perhaps provoke mutiny in the ranks if soldiers were ordered to move on civilians.
Trump demanded that mayors and governors “dominate” the protestors and said he would send troops to do the job if they couldn’t — or wouldn’t. Esper joined him in characterizing the cities as a “battle space.” But when Trump threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act and pressed Esper to send Special Operations troops from Fort Bragg, NC, to crush protests in Washington, Esper demurred.
Instead, at the urging of the Joint Chiefs and all his predecessors still living, Secretary Esper rejected Trump’s demands, branded Trump’s threats illegal, and issued directives reminding officers and their troops of their duty to refuse illegal orders. This cost Esper his job: After the election, Trump fired Esper on Twitter. Miller has shown none of his predecessors’ backbone. Quite the opposite, and that’s what’s bothering the uniformed military who must answer to civilian authority. On his way out, Esper warned on November 4, if Trump imposed someone loyal to him, and not to the Constitution: “And then God help us.”
“Who’s going to come in behind me? It’s going to be a real ‘yes man.’ And then God help us.” —Defense Secretary Mark Esper
Miller’s first actions were troubling: a retired colonel formerly attached to Green Berets, he removed the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) from the purview of the Joint Chiefs. Instead, he placed JSOC directly under his authority — and Trump’s. This created fear among the Joint Chiefs that Special Operations could be ordered into a domestic conflict against their wishes.
Miller aggravated their concerns by appointing as his undersecretary for intelligence and low-intensity warfare — also in an acting capacity and not confirmed by the Senate — Ezra Cohen-Watnik, a naval intelligence officer, CIA operative, and former aide to Michael Flynn.
Following his pardon, Flynn resumed an active but informal role as adviser to the president; he called for Trump to declare martial law, postpone the reporting of votes by the Electoral College, and have the military do the counting. Flynn’s successor at the Defense Intelligence Agency and retired chief of US Cyber Command, Vincent Stewart, also rebuked Trump, and by implication Flynn and Miller. As if racing the clock, Miller set another political timebomb for the Biden team to defuse. He forced the world’s biggest surveillance web, the National Security Agency, to accept a Trump loyalist as its legal adviser.
Another Nightmare Scenario: The Tail Wags the Dog
The maneuvering at the top exposed a deepening fissure in the government, with Trump loyalists trying to retain the levers of power long into the transition. Miller made the Biden team furious by refusing to provide security briefings until Biden’s official confirmation by Congress, putting security at risk at home and abroad.
Sources in the Defense Department and military services told WhoWhatWhy that any attempt to launch attacks against a foreign adversary or to retaliate for an alleged attack on the eve of his scheduled departure would be viewed universally as a dangerous provocation that would generate furious domestic opposition.
The deeper purpose of the Trumpist moves in the military, these sources suspect, is to provide a final option for Trump — what a legendary operative once described as “a last resort beyond last resort and a confession of weakness.” Any military action would technically allow Trump to declare a national security emergency, deploy troops to suppress the inevitable demonstrations against a contrived war, perhaps even declare martial law, rule by decree through secret presidential directives called Presidential Emergency Action Documents and executive orders pre-authorized by Congress, and thereby delay or suspend Biden’s inauguration and an impeachment trial in the Senate. Those, of course, are exactly the result analysts believe to have been the motive for the assault on the Capitol on January 6 which came within minutes of achieving that purpose.
Security of Congress and the Capitol complex is managed by the US Capitol Police, an autonomous federal agency under the supervision of a commission that includes the sergeants-at-arms of the House and Senate, both of whom submitted their resignations along with the chief, Steven Sund, at the demand of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, one of the targets for “citizens’ arrest” and execution as a “traitor” by the mob intent on stopping the fictional “steal.”
Sund admitted that his office had downplayed its own intelligence report as well as warnings passed from the FBI to its Washington Field Office and Joint Terrorism Task Force, all suggesting that Congress might be attacked by Trump’s supporters, just as they had threatened for weeks since their Million MAGA March of November 16. Because Metro Police had handled that low-turnout rehearsal so handily, Sund told NPR that no one anticipated the Trump rally would turn so violent so quickly and overwhelm the small force — roughly 400 of the 2,000-plus under his command — that protected the vast complex as members met to confirm the electoral college and debate objections.
Within a half-hour of the invasion, Sund called DC Metropolitan Police under Mayor Muriel Bowser, who dispatched another 100 officers in a vain attempt to hold back the mob.
Meanwhile, calls to the DC National Guard were passed up the line to the acting secretary of the army, Ryan McCarthy, who first denied the request to send troops, allegedly because he “didn’t like the optics” of soldiers surrounding the building and arresting the assailants. McCarthy later disputed Chief Sund’s account and suggested that the hard-pressed Capitol and DC Metro Police were unprepared, waited too long to request help, and dithered. McCarthy provided a different timeline to Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO), a former Army Ranger who thought he’d have to fight his way out of the House chamber.
This broken chain of command included the Department of Homeland Security, whose acting secretary, Chad Wolf, was the fourth to fill the post in an “acting” capacity in four years under Trump. Wolf resigned on January 11 in the midst of the constitutional crisis of succession and inauguration planning, a national special security event requiring close coordination between federal, regional, state, and local authorities. In the post-mortem of the insurrection at the Capitol, analysts contend, this lack of planning amounted to a form of planned negligence by omission.
Both Wolf’s replacement, Pete Gaynor, and his deputy Ken Cuccinelli, defended the department’s cooperation. But when asked point blank whether the president could be trusted not to give orders to stand down if the inauguration were attacked, Cucinelli repeated, “That’s unimaginable.”
The Department of Homeland Security’s role is precisely to imagine the unimaginable, to defend against the unthinkable. And, in fact, the Department of Homeland Security had its own forces standing by — but failed to send them. The agency downplayed the threat to the Capitol. That failure is now under investigation internally, as well as by the District attorney general’s probe into how far the conspiracy to assault Congress had spread, and how high, and whether it was aided and abetted by officials simply doing nothing, by failing to act.
Another unanswered issue is whether that investigation has the explicit blessing of Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, who may yet be named a person of interest as Barr’s sidekick through the department’s surrender to Trump. Comparisons to 9/11, the emergency that prompted Congress to create a Department of Homeland Security and endow it with extraordinary resources and authority, are inevitable, as are the calls for a special prosecutor or a presidential commission to investigate.
But here again, intelligence and law enforcement sources told WhoWhatWhy, the local officials, the Democratic mayor, and congressional leaders hiding in a secure bunker in the bowels of the Capitol on January 6 may have been inhibited by fears of falling into a trap.
Requesting Trump to send the National Guard could conceivably trigger a firefight in and around the Capitol that would kill even more people, giving Trump the excuse he needed to invoke the Insurrection Act or his authority to protect federal property, and declare the national security emergency that would allow him to seize power — even if some of his own perceived “useful idiots” had to be sacrificed along with members of Congress, even his own vice president.
So, instead, they called the governors of Maryland and Virginia, who finally got permission from McCarthy and Miller to dispatch the forces necessary to relieve the beleaguered defenders under siege.
By the time the mob was dispersed and the National Guard arrived two hours later, five people lay dead, including:
- A woman from Kennesaw, GA, trampled by her compatriots while carrying a flag saying “Don’t tread on me.”
- A man from Pennsylvania who died of a heart attack after allegedly falling on his own taser.
- An Alabama man who went from Obama supporter to Trump in 2016, also a medical emergency.
- An Air Force veteran shot by police as she attempted to crawl through a window into the hall that led to the House chamber.
- Capitol Police officer, Brian Sicknick, struck in the head by a fire extinguisher.
At least a dozen of Brian Sicknick’s fellow Capitol officers are under investigation for fraternizing with the rioters, dereliction of duty, and possible collusion in allowing people to enter while Congress was in special session. It emerged that Sund, luckily but reluctantly, had banned visitors and guided tours of the Capitol that day, after Democrats reported that some of their Republican colleagues had given tours of the building to Trump supporters who later participated in the riot. At least six Republican representatives are under investigation for possible censure or expulsion.
Crowd Control vs. Crowd as Cover
Although most of the invaders, brawlers, and rioters were allowed to walk away, about 75 people were detained on-site. Using cellphone data, location apps, selfies, livestream videos, and videos posted on social media platforms, a federal task force went to work tracking the movements of the rioters. One amateur collected and downloaded a trove of terabytes from Parler, the rightwing platform that replaced Twitter as the preferred exchange for Trump’s fans.
The federal dragnet continues, but the ragtag crowd itself served as cover for something more sinister: Highly trained military and police. Jacob Chansley, the now infamous “QAnon Shaman,” is an Air Force veteran, as was QAnon follower Ashli Babbitt, who died leading the charge, the movement’s martyred angel. Michael Flynn has posted QAnon slogans repeatedly. Trump, his family, and advisers retweeted Q slogans and memes nearly 300 times over the past two years, according to researchers for Media Matters.
Trump met with “Q influencers” before his rally and riot to “stop the steal.” QAnon believers were active participants in “The Storm” of the Capitol on January 6, also the day of Epiphany (a revelation or appearance of the messiah) in the Christian calendar. That event was for them “the Great Awakening” that made allies and enemies emerge from the shadows. They await the inauguration as fulfillment of apocalyptic prophecy that Trump will return as an avenger to wage war on unbelievers.
No sooner had the assault been pushed back than members of Congress and the Biden transition urged the Joint Chiefs to investigate their own ranks for active-duty personnel who might have participated in the attempted coup.
One officer was quickly identified: Capt. Emily Rainey served in a 4th Psychological Operations Group from the 1st Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg until receiving a reprimand for her involvement in protests against the election results last fall. She admitted leading a 100-person contingent of Moore County, NC, Citizens for Freedom that traveled by chartered bus to DC for the rally and march but denied participating in the assault. She has resigned her commission after asserting that she attended the Capitol assault off-duty, as a private citizen exercising her constitutional rights.
The Army’s Criminal Investigations Division has yet to determine how many other attendees from Secretary Miller’s old base were active-duty military. But among the Carolina contingent were veterans who tout membership in a paramilitary group calling themselves “Three Percenters” — a name derived from their estimate that only 3 percent of the population of the 13 British colonies in 1776 were active in that rebellion to form the United States. The number apparently does not include Indigenous people or slaves, and Three Percenters want to keep it that way in their own ranks and the new Confederacy they’d prefer to the current “tyranny.”
The number of participants in the military-style assault on the Capitol has been lost in the images of a motley crowd waving flags outside, milling around Statuary Hall, gazing upward to take photos of the Rotunda like any other tourist, or posing for selfies with pelts and horned hats in the Senate’s august chamber.
— Robyn Stevens Brody (@rstevensbrody) January 11, 2021
This cosplay clown show served as additional cover for a few highly trained, platoon-sized commando units. After gaining access, they didn’t stop to ask police for directions but went directly through the milling mob to the House speaker’s office and the Senate chamber.
Even among this group, one element stood out: A column of a dozen or so in desert camouflage uniforms with patches identifying themselves as “Oathkeepers,” sworn to enforce the Constitution, marching up the Capitol steps in “ranger-file,” one hand on the shoulder of the person in front. One was a woman caught on video barking orders to others in the crowd to break into windows. She also communicated by cell phone with a male superior who told her to “stick with the plan.”
An Army veteran of Afghanistan, Jessica Watkins, identified herself as the director of the Ohio Regular Militia, an affiliate of the Oathkeepers. She replaced another veteran who had been convicted of possessing explosive devices, including homemade napalm. Another Ohio Regular, photographed emerging from the Capitol and suspected as the male voice talking to Watkins inside, is a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf War against Iraq, and an avowed racist.
A retired Air Force Lt. Col. Larry Brock, from Texas, led a contingent into the House speaker’s lobby and later appeared in the Senate chamber in battle fatigues holding zip-ties meant for taking hostages. Another man in the same contingent wearing a flak jacket, full camo, and a balaclava was carrying a ring of zip-tie cuffs in the House chamber. Both were arrested.
Likewise, a retired Navy SEAL posted a video praising the insurrection. But when questioned, he said he only wanted to scare the elected representatives: “I wanted them shaking,” he said, but denied that made him a terrorist. Some lawmakers, including veterans, admitted they were terrified of being killed.
What, exactly, was their plan?
The insurrection plotters are not saying but investigators who have been monitoring this “chatter” on open websites and encrypted platforms note the specifics that punctuate the bravado with which the posters pump each other up for action, like this message posted by an Army officer associated with the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen SS:
What’s more alarming than this one post is that it’s not an exception but quickly became the rule among Nazi-inspired paramilitaries working in more disciplined, small, tactical units with comand-and-control via encrypted cellphone apps. They are armed, dangerous, increasingly effective, and ready to strike whenever the opportunity presents. They practice, learn from mistakes, and practice some more.
Other invaders were police, many also ex-military, at least 13 of whom had been identified as suspects by January 16, with more surely to follow.
The aftershocks and blowback continue as the clock ticks toward 12:01 p.m. Wednesday, January 20, 2021. Whatever the result — the much-fretted and frayed “peaceful transition” to a new president or another explosion of violence, martial law, even civil war — the pressure is building even as the time for action shrinks.
In a disjointed statement, the man in the middle, Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, sounds like he has cracked. Describing his role in the military’s response to the January 6, insurrection and his plans for the inauguration, he said:
I made some notes. I went out, you know, met with the General VanHerck today, and his team. Key tasks were, one, kind of get an update on, um, state of homeland defense, two, make sure that we were synced on not just the inauguration threat, because that’s really like… but at this point there’s a machine that’s cranking on that, but just made it… wanted to talk about the rest of the country, you know, and uh, then listened to his team on the stuff that they’re doing. They’re doing some really, really innovative stuff about, you know, competition and how we do things below the threshold of armed conflict, which I think is kind of really, really important.
Days later, the man between Donald Trump and the troops and the codes to launch nuclear war told us there’s nothing to worry about.
The world holds its breath.
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from The National Guard / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).