People keep asking me whether I believe President Trump is plotting a coup to prevent Joe Biden from taking office.
Those fears have arisen, of course, as Trump insists he won, and floods his fans with lies about massive voter fraud. Meantime, he sacks the secretary of defense and packs top Defense Department posts with partisan cronies.
I don’t believe the U.S. president can or will call out the U.S. military to enforce a second term like a copycat Belarusian dictator.
But what this president is doing is almost as ugly (although hardly unexpected). He appears bent on undermining our national security during the transition, in pursuit of last-minute revenge and domestic civil war.
“In a transition period there is already going to be turbulence, and leaders should try to provide stability so enemies don’t take advantage,” I was told this week by H.R. McMaster, who served a rocky year as Trump’s national security adviser.
Yet the president is stoking turbulence prior to Biden’s inauguration in so many ways that gift our overseas foes.
Most petty is Trump’s refusal to allow Biden security briefings — a practice adhered to by past presidents of both parties. This is no minor matter, as new presidents have to be ready the moment they take office.
A Washington Post op-ed by Andy Card and John Podesta, White House chiefs of staff under George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, respectively, points out the life-threatening cost of a delayed presidential transition. The 9/11 Commission report found that the delay in the 2000 transition hampered the speed of confirming key national security appointees to the Bush administration. This in turn slowed down the administration’s recognition of the looming al-Qaeda threat. And a terrorist threat in the USA was foiled on the day Barack Obama was inaugurated.
As the two authors point out, in 2000 the dispute was over one state and 537 votes, not the situation now, where there is no way for Trump to win.
Then there is the question of Trump’s intent in firing top Department of Defense leadership and replacing them with a bunch of under-qualified ideologues.
Talking to former Pentagon officials, I found strong agreement that the military would resist being pulled into a political election process. Especially after the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mark Milley, felt he had to apologize for getting dragged into Trump’s infamous walk across Lafayette Square.
“The military can’t follow an illegal order,” says Dov Zakheim, undersecretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration. “Trump would have to invoke the Insurrection Act, but there are no riots, so what for?”
But what worries the Pentagon, and U.S. intelligence agencies, is Trump’s insistence that they turn over classified documents he believes will prove that Russia didn’t support him in 2016 — even if this reveals intelligence sources and methods.
Trump has now packed top DOD posts with four supporters who have tried to discredit investigations that proved Russian interference. These include Anthony Tata, who has called President Obama a “terrorist leader,” and close associates of GOP Congressman Devin Nunes, who pushed the false claim that the Obama administration had spied on Trump.
“Trump has struggled time and again to get the Pentagon to do his bidding,” says John Gans, former chief Pentagon speechwriter and author of White House Warriors, a history of the National Security Council. “These [four men] are the foot soldiers of Trump’s war on government, his war on what he calls the ‘deep state.’ They are willing to bend and break the rules.”
So there you have what I think is Trump’s obsession for the next two months: a last-ditch effort to get revenge for the “Russia hoax.”
Perhaps the president also wants to bring home the under 4,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan and hand the country over to the Taliban before Jan. 20, so he can say he satisfied a campaign promise.
But neither Russia “hoax” revenge or gifting the Taliban has anything to do with securing America. It’s all about Trump’s personal needs.
And when it comes to helping our enemies before Jan. 20, nothing could be more effective than the president’s determination to smash democratic norms.
Not only is Trump refusing bipartisan cooperation in confronting an out-of-control pandemic. He is also deliberately attacking the legitimacy of our democratic elections. Both feed the Chinese and Russian narrative that democracy is a failed system.
“I’m most worried about the effect on U.S. public opinion,” says Harvard’s Daniel Ziblatt, coauthor of How Democracies Die. "Sixty percent of Republicans think the election is not legitimate, so [they will think] Biden is not a legitimate president.
“This is totally reckless. We’re in a situation where we have a state of permanent institutional warfare.”
A few GOP senators have woken up enough to call for Trump to give Biden security briefings, but not enough to denounce his attacks on democratic norms and his aid to our enemies.
The Biden administration cannot come soon enough to rid us of this Trumpian Nero who fiddles while America burns.