Pentagon and Washington-area military leaders are on red alert, wary of what
PresidentDonald Trump might do in his remaining days in office. Though far-fetched, ranking officers have discussed what they would do if the president declared martial law. And military commands responsible for Washington DC are engaged in secret contingency planning in case the armed forces are called upon to maintain or restore civil order during the inauguration and transition period. According to one officer who spoke to Newsweek on condition of anonymity, the planning is being kept out of sight of the White House and Trump loyalists in the Pentagon for fear that it would be shut down.
"I've been associated with the military for over 40 years and I've never seen the discussions that are being had right now, the need for such discussions," says a retired flag officer, currently a defense contractor who has mentored and advised his service's senior leaders. He was granted anonymity in order to speak without fear of reprisal.
A half-dozen officers in similar positions agree that while there is zero chance that the uniformed leadership would involve itself in any scheme to create an election-related reversal, they worry that the military could get sucked into a crisis of Trump's making, particularly if the president tries to rally private militias and pro-Trump paramilitaries in an effort to disrupt the transition and bring violence to the capital.
“But martial law," says the lawyer, "is the wrong paradigm to think about the dangers ahead." Though such a presidential proclamation could flow from his order as commander-in-chief, an essential missing ingredient is the martial side: the involvement and connivance of some cabal of officers who would support the president's illegal move.
Such a group doesn't exist, he and other experts agree, but there could still be room for mischief, confusion, and even use of military force. It would just not be in the way Trump might intend, particularly if he continues his quest to destabilize the democratic process.
[O]fficers who were willing to speak about the subject insisted on anonymity, fearful that use of their names might provoke the ire of the president. They feared that publicly stated opposition to the president's scheme to undermine the election—whether that is to proclaim martial law, to seize voting machines, or even to halt Congress from ratifying state elector's results on January 6—could actually embolden Donald Trump to act.
"At this point there's no telling what [Trump]
the presidentmight do in the next month," says a former Northern Command (NORTHCOM) commander, one who has been intimately involved in the development of domestic civil planning. "Though I'm confident that the uniformed military leadership has their heads screwed on right, the craziness is unprecedented and the possibilities are endless."
Military lawyers say that threats to public safety and order have to exist beyond the capacity of the federal government or state and local government to resolve. But they point out that in Portland, Oregon, and other cities across America, the Department of Homeland Security has already declared that the local governments have lost control, necessitating federal intervention, even without the state's permission. That precedent could embolden the White House to believe it has the right to act.
So it's also conceivable that in the District of Columbia a commander could independently invoke martial law to restore order were there a complete breakdown. All the sources Newsweek spoke to, from the Pentagon military leadership down to the Joint Task Force already activated for coronavirus and used to suppress the George Floyd riots, agree that such a declaration is unlikely—that is, unless there is an armed rebellion undertaken on behalf of Donald Trump.
"The greatest danger is that the very existence of these layers of secret directives might convey the impression of powers and authorities that don't really exist in peacetime," the former Justice Department lawyer says.
In years of writing on this subject, I have never heard so many officers—active and retired—willing to talk openly about the need for professional military officers to review their sacred obligations to refuse to follow unlawful orders and to think through their roles and duties given the Donald Trump wild card, even though he is still president.
"You've got to recognize an illegal order when it comes your way," says another retired flag officer, saying he has been involved in unprecedented internal discussions going on right now about this subject. The officer, who declined to speak on the record, says that though lawful and unlawful orders are a part of officer training from the beginning, "the principles of loyalty to the Constitution hammered home from the start of every career, ... we've never had the real thing, never someone who occupied the White House who conducted themselves anything like
Should Trump try any such illegal move, he needs to be charged with treason, convicted and given the harshest penalty available.