As I said back in 2016 when it came to Turkey, if you want to stage a coup, you need five things:
- Armed forces
- and the Asshole in charge you're trying to overthrow.
If you think about what Trump's doing in the US right now, it's trying to get a hold of these five things, where the "asshole" is Joe Biden. Allies he's had from the beginning: the GOP will let Trump do whatever he wants. Airports, Trump has control of those too if needed. Airwaves, he has not one but two state TV networks in FOX and OANN, and he's currently going after Biden with Barr and "Obamagate".
That leaves the Armed Forces, the really dangerous one.
I don't have good news in that regard.
President Donald Trump has always prized loyalty in his subordinates, but news about pending personnel moves at the Pentagon could indicate the president is determined to root out perceived enemies within the Defense Department.
Jonathan Swan of Axios first reported in February that the White House had compiled a list of civil servants across the government who should be dismissed because they allegedly had not been loyal enough to the president. The ousted government officials will reportedly be replaced by people who are more ardently pro-Trump.
Since then, it has emerged that Trump intends to nominate retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata, a Fox News contributor, to fill the No. 3 leadership position in the Pentagon. Tata left the Army after an investigation found he had affairs with at least two women while serving in uniform, the Raleigh News & Observer reported. More recently, Tata has lauded Trump for his support of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher.
Tata is already serving as a senior advisor to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, a defense official confirmed following a May 15 news story by Foreign Policy’s Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer.
The two Foreign Policy reporters also first revealed that Michael Cutrone will move from Vice President Mike Pence’s office to the Pentagon, raising concern from some administration officials that Cutrone will undermine Esper by vetting political appointees to the Defense Department based on how loyal they are to Trump.
Considering what's most likely coming as the Trump Depression and COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage, looking a few miles downstream is warranted at this point.
While the recent personnel moves may signal a more aggressive push by the president to exert direct control over the Pentagon, the White House has been deeply involved in selecting officials for defense jobs since the beginning of the Trump administration.
Under then-Defense Secretary James Mattis, several defense officials faced a protracted vetting process because the White House felt that their social media posts were not sufficiently loyal to Trump, a former Defense Department official told Task & Purpose.
But since the Senate acquitted Trump in February of allegedly withholding $250 million of military aid to Ukraine in an attempt to get that country's government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, the president has been particularly vindictive against defense officials over any sign of disloyalty — real or perceived.
If confirmed by the Senate, Tata would replace John Rood, who was fired in February. Rood had certified in May 2019 that Ukraine had made enough progress fighting corruption to allow for the military assistance package to go through, thus undermining Trump's arguments about why he withheld the aid.
Trump has also withdrawn Elaine McCusker’s nomination to be the Pentagon’s comptroller. McCusker had reportedly raised concerns with the Office of Management and Budget about whether the president’s freeze of military aid to Ukraine was legal.
Likewise, The White House removed Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from the National Security Council in February. During the president’s impeachment inquiry in November, Vindman told lawmakers there was “no ambiguity” that Trump had asked Ukraine’s president to investigate former Biden during the July 25 phone call between the two leaders.
The president is retaliating against defense officials who argued in favor of providing the military aid Ukraine and anyone who stood up to Trump himself, said Evelyn Farkas, a former Defense Department official in the Obama administration whose purview included Russian and Ukraine.
“I don’t think the president minds that we know this,” said, Farkas, who is running for Congress in New York as a Democrat. “I think that he’s trying to send a signal internally and externally: don’t cross him.”
Getting rid of anyone in the Pentagon who played a role in his impeachment is one thing, but I think Trump's playing a longer game, perhaps much longer.
It's definitely a far more dangerous one, as Jon Chait reminds us.
The most dangerous elements of Trump’s anti-democratic agenda are as-yet-unexploded ordnance, which may over time prove either terrifying or meaningless. His regular incitements to violence, goading his “tough” supporters in the military, police, and biker gangs to finally take off the gloves, have not yet produced a republic-shaking tragedy. And his embrace of Republican vote-suppression logic — he is now threatening to withhold funds from states that allow absentee voting — may, or may not, prevent a free and fair election. These actions are democratic tail risks. Like abolishing the pandemic response team, they’re quickly denounced and quickly forgotten, because they probably won’t matter in the end — unless they do matter, in which case their effect will be catastrophic.
Maybe Trump doesn't have the balls to arrest Joe Biden. But he'll do everything up to that point, and if civil unrest happens, then all bets are off.