Breakfast with Bwana
Surely, a coup de Trump would have failed. But would it?
By Anil Madan
One week after the rioting mob breached the sanctity of the Capitol complex, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on an article of impeachment charging Donald Trump with incitement of insurrection.
Trump simply would not accept his defeat. To this day, he has not had the grace to concede and congratulate Biden. Photo – GettyImages
Trump, asserts that his remarks were “totally appropriate” and despite condemnation from some Republican legislators, shows no contrition or remorse. He has some who make excuses for him. Alan Dershowitz, Professor Emeritus of Harvard Law School declares his readiness to defend Trump and proffers the defense that Trump’s remarks were protected speech under the First Amendment. But that is sophistry. There is simply no excuse for what Trump did on January 6th or indeed, over the two months after the election leading to that fateful day. Inciting a mob to pressure the Vice President to take steps that are unlawful and unconstitutional is not free speech protected by the First Amendment. Not by a long shot.
Let us step back and set the table. Donald Trump lost the election and lost it handily despite the fact that he garnered 11 million more votes in 2020 than he had in 2016. The problem, of course, was that Joe Biden got almost 15.5 million more votes than Hillary Clinton had in 2020 and his net gain over Trump was more than double Hillary Clinton’s popular vote margin.
But Trump refused to accept the result of an election that Christopher Krebs, Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) of the Department of Homeland Security called “the most secure in American history.” Trump was blind to the truth. Krebs’ report underscored the integrity of the election: “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” Trump not only rejected the truth, he dismissed Krebs and continued to assail the election results with false claims of fraud and attempts to browbeat state officials, judges, even the Supreme Court and his Vice President.
Trump simply would not accept his defeat. To this day, he has not had the grace to concede and congratulate Biden. He has stooped so low as to say he will not attend Biden’s inauguration. That is, of course, just fine with Biden and with most sensible Americans as well.
We pause here to note that, of course, a losing candidate has the right to request a recount under applicable rules and to challenge election results in court. Donald Trump’s campaign exercised those rights and, as well third parties claiming to be aggrieved, also sought relief in the courts. Of the 62 lawsuits filed by Trump and others challenging the election results, 61 were outright losses for Trump and his cohorts. The sole semi-victory was a ruling by a Pennsylvania judge that voters had three days after the election to provide proper ID and “cure” their ballots but that did not change Trump’s loss in that state.
The appropriate authorities in every state duly certified the results of the election as required by law. Joe Biden had won the presidency. This was not good enough for Trump. Falsehoods and baseless accusations continued to pour out of his mouth — an unending cascade of mendacity, denial and delusion.
Finally, we come to January 6th, the day on which the Electoral College votes were to be opened and tabulated before a joint session of the House and Senate. Vice President Pence in his capacity as the President of the Senate has the largely ceremonial role of opening the certificates of the votes and handing them to the tellers appointed by the House and Senate.
By the terms of a federal law any controversy about the appointment of electors is to be determined under state law and once such a determination has been made at least six days before the electors are to meet and cast their votes (December 14, 2020 in this case) that determination is conclusive.
Donald Trump saw no impediment to ignoring federal law and the Constitution. He insisted that Vice President Pence could simply disregard federal law and the conclusive certifications and reject the duly appointed electors. The plan was to enlist Pence in either remanding the matter to the state legislatures so that they would appoint Republican electors favourable to Trump or create a situation where neither Biden nor Trump had enough electors to be declared President and thus throw the matter to the House of Representatives where each state gets one vote and with a majority of states being controlled by Republicans, Trump would be declared President.
To belabour the point which must be made, all of this was, of course, unlawful, a disregard of the actual result of the election, anti-Democratic, and wholly un-American, not to mention distasteful and despicable.
Coup de Trump
Pence had solicited opinions from his counsel and scholars and been advised that he did not have the power to do what Trump was demanding. In a meeting with Trump, Pence told him that he would not acquiesce to his (unlawful) demands. Knowing that Pence would not be dishonest enough to capitulate, Trump played one last card. He had invited his supporters to come to Washington on January 6 and promised that it would be “wild”. He then exhorted his supporters to march to the Capitol and demand that Pence “do the right thing”. He exhorted them to be strong and not to be weak.
We don’t have to parse his speech to debate whether Trump was inciting the mob to violence. It is sufficient that he enlisted their support in an unlawful enterprise to pressure Pence to ignore the Electoral College votes and overturn the conclusive result of the election.
The rest is history. We all saw what the mob did when it breached the Capitol complex.
We came close, very close to a disaster. No, we didn’t necessarily get to a coup d’état that would have kept him on as President although some troublesome questions about that remain. What we came close to was a situation in which leading legislators could have been killed. There were calls to hang Mike Pence and calls to execute Pelosi, Schumer, McConnell, and others perceived as not friendly to Trump. Some of the rioters were armed. One had zip ties to take Democratic lawmakers into custody. Some displayed nooses to be used to hang Pence and others.
Imagine a scenario in which the mob had actually hanged the four leaders mentioned and killed other Democratic legislators. With Trump still President and Commander in Chief, how would the chiefs of staff of the armed forces have acted? One would like to think that neither they, nor the Secret Service would have stood by Trump and that he would have been charged and arrested.
Surely, a coup de Trump would have failed. But would it?
How and why did we come this close? It is obvious to anyone who witnessed the events of January 6 that the Capitol Police were undermanned and unprepared for an invasion. Whereas one can argue that it was not reasonable to expect that such a thing could happen in America, that is not clear. The Department of Defense posted a detailed planning & execution timeline for the National Guard’s involvement in the January 6, 2021 violent attack at the U.S. Capitol that raises more questions than it answers.
The memo reveals that Mayor Bowser’s request for DC National Guard (DCNG) support was discussed on the preceding Saturday, January 2, at the highest level by the Acting Secretary of Defense (A/SD), the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) and the Secretary of the Army (SECARMY).
No request had been received from the Capitol Police (USCP) for support. This is not the DC police force commanded by Mayor Bowser but a separate federal force charged with maintaining the security of the Capitol complex. The Department of Defense (DoD) checked with the USCP on Sunday to confirm that there was no request for support. Why? What did they know?
On Sunday, the A/SD met with select Cabinet members to discuss DoD support for law enforcement agencies and potential requirements for such support. The Cabinet members are not identified. Again, why was this discussion necessary?
Most importantly, on Sunday the SECARMY and CJCS met with the President who “concurred in the activation of the DCNG to support law enforcement.” There is no higher level of discussion possible. But again, was this merely the support for traffic control that Mayor Bowser had requested? Why was the full DCNG not on alert for rapid deployment?
On Monday, January 4, the A/SD in consultation with CJCS, SECARMY and the DoD General Counsel, reviewed the Department’s plans to be prepared to provide support to civil authorities. It is noteworthy that in addition to approving activation of 340 DCNG personnel to support Mayor Bowser’s request and presumably complying with her admonition that they be unarmed, the A/SD also approved a Quick Reaction Force of 40 personnel—yes, only 40—to be staged at Joint Base Andrews in case additional support was requested by civil authorities.
One has to ask why these high-level people thought that a Quick Reaction Force was necessary and what they were thinking when only 40 personnel were approved. This just does not seem sensible on its face.
The timeline of events on January 6 is frightening. It shows inexcusable gaps in planning and execution. At 8:30 that morning, A/SD and CJCS reviewed the DoD plan to support law enforcement. At 11:30 the A/SD participated in a tabletop exercise regarding DoD contingency response actions. Why was a tabletop exercise not done days earlier?
Note that it was not until after 3:00 PM that full activation of DCNG (1,100 personnel) was ordered and by 4:00 PM, 1,532 personnel from Virginia and 1,547 personnel from Maryland were activated.
Contrast that total of 4,179 troops with the 40 personnel that A/SD had previously approved.
Another jarring note is this entry: “1519: SECARMY phone call with Senator Schumer and Speaker Pelosi about the nature of Mayor Bowser’s request. SECARMY explains A/SD already approved full DCNG mobilization.” Perhaps it would have been wiser to confer with congressional leadership in advance about the levels of protection needed for the Capitol. Mayor Bowser is not responsible for the USCP. Nor should her concerns about the optics of having the DCNG deployed have deflected the A/SD and other high-ranking military personnel from clear-headed thinking about what was necessary to ensure that the Capitol was protected.
Message to the Joint Force
In this context, another document is worth considering. On January 12, the Joint Chiefs of Staff released a ‘Message to the Joint Force’ denouncing the assault of January 6 on the Capitol, and makes three declarations worth quoting in full:
“We witnessed actions inside the Capitol building that were inconsistent with the rule of law. The rights of freedom of speech and assembly do not give anyone the right to resort to violence, sedition and insurrection.
“As Service Members, we must embody the values and ideals of the Nation. We support and defend the Constitution. Any act to disrupt the Constitutional process is not only against our traditions, values, and oath; it is against the law.”
“As we have done throughout our history, the U.S. military will obey lawful orders from civilian leadership, support civil authorities to protect lives and property, ensure public safety in accordance with the law, and remain fully committed to protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
“On January 20, 2021, in accordance with the Constitution, confirmed by the states and the courts, and certified by Congress, President-elect Biden will be inaugurated and will become our 46th Commander in Chief.”
It is extraordinary that such a memo should have been written and needed to be written. Aside from a clear rebuke of Trump’s incitement, and a declaration that they will not stand by him after Biden is sworn in as the next President, they clearly state that they will obey only “lawful” orders from civilian leadership.
The events of January 6 and the available evidence show that we came much closer than we think to having utter chaos and disruption. It appears that at the highest levels, responsible people anticipated a problem but were woefully unprepared to the point of negligence.
Let us hope that this sort of thing is never, ever repeated.
* Published in print edition on 15 January 2021