“In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”
— US President Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” farewell address
It’s the nightmare scenario — a recalcitrant and slightly unhinged President Donald Trump, having lost the election, refuses to leave the White House.
A standoff of unprecedented proportions and a disaster for America’s democracy looms. Could it happen? Will it happen? What can be done?
Some concerned military officials think action is required, and they have spoken up in a big way.
According to Jeff Schogol at Task & Purpose, Paul Yingling and John Nagl, two respected former Army officers, recently called on Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), to order US troops to sweep aside Trump’s Praetorian Guard of “little green men” and escort the president out of the White House should Trump refuse to accept a loss at the ballot box.
“Throughout our history, Americans have laid down their lives so that this form of government may endure,” Yingling and Nagl wrote in a commentary for Defense One. “Continuing the unfinished work for which these heroes fell now falls to you.”
To Defense One’s credit, it immediately published a counter-argument, calling the action to remove a sitting president “deeply irresponsible.”
Understandably, much criticism followed from all directions, including a tidal wave of social media outrage.
The notion of a coup also made it into the news cycle with CNN airing a segment on Aug. 14 about why such a military intervention would be a bad idea.
As expected, the Pentagon dismissed talk of potential military involvement in any post-election dispute, calling the debate “unserious thought,” The Hill reported.
“We have a Constitution, and our Constitution, which all members of the military have sworn an oath to, provides no role for the US military as arbiter of political or election disputes,” chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said at a press briefing.
“This issue appears to be borne of unserious thought reflecting a fundamental lack of appreciation for the history of our democracy and the civilian-military relationship established under our Constitution,” he added.
Pressed further if the military was prepared to provide support to civilian authorities in the event of post-election unrest, Hoffman called the scenario “hypothetical” and referred back to his previous comment.
Yet both Nagl and Yingling both understand the military very well.
Nagl helped write the Army and Marine Corps’ counterinsurgency manual and Yingling wrote an article in Armed Forces Journal arguing that the US military’s generals repeated the mistakes made in Vietnam during the Iraq war, Task & Purpose reported.
Moreover, it’s not just these two military experts who have raised the possibility of the military playing a role in the coming election.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate in November, has even suggested the service chiefs would remove Trump from the White House if the president refused to concede defeat, Task & Purpose reported.
Milley, for reasons recognized by the Goldwater-Nichols DoD Reorganization Act of 1986, is not actually within the DoD’s chain of command, Connecting Vets online reported.
He has no executive authority to command combatant forces and cannot order military personnel to do anything. The chain of command runs from the commander in chief, Trump, to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to the commanders of the combatant commands.
Nagl and Yingling do not address this in their letter.
Another reason why some of Trump’s opponents are raising the specter of using troops to depose the president is that for several decades the US government has reflexively called on the military to handle any emergency, Task & Purpose reported.
“This, of course, is not a wise or a thoughtful response but it’s quite a widespread response – and bipartisan,” said Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University in North Carolina.
“We got a problem with immigration: Send the military to the border. We have a problem with distribution of vaccines: Let the military do it. We have a problem with Ebola: Let’s deploy the military.”
With all of that said, anyone calling for a military coup to oust a sitting president has not lived through an actual coup — usually they don’t go well. One only has to look at Egypt, where the military massacred more than 800 peaceful protesters.
According to an op-ed by Kori Schake in AEI online, the Constitution provides remedies for a president refusing to leave office. The courts would, as they have before, determine whether electoral law had been followed, and the House would verify the results of the Electoral College.
Even in the extremely unprecedented event that election results remained actively and legally contested, the 20th Amendment includes a provision that “the terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January” and clear instructions in US law dictate the line of succession, writes Schake.
The chief justice would swear in the newly elected or appointed president, removing any authority from their predecessor. Any direction followed by the military or any government actor other than this civilian president from that point on would be illegal.
Perhaps, but what if he still won’t leave?
The Yingling-Nagl letter paints President Reagan’s once “shining city on a hill,” as a city and a democracy under siege.
It closes dramatically by restating the oath Milley took when he assumed the role of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and an admonition that “the fate of our Republic may well depend upon your adherence to this oath.”