The Road to Jan 6 Final

The Silent Coup Against Donald Trump Emerged in a Super-Secure Meeting Room

In this daily series, Newsweek explores the steps that led to the January 6 Capitol Riot.

In the days following the election, the chiefs of all of the top national security agencies were on edge. Secretary of Defense Mike Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley, CIA Director Gina Haspel, FBI Director Christopher Wray: all believed they might be fired because they were not loyal enough to the president. Trump administration insiders, even former White House Chief of Staff retired General John Kelly, told them they were "dead meat."

The ability to hire and fire at will was largely the only unilateral power remaining to Donald Trump. At 12:54 p.m. on Monday, November 9, he tweeted that he was pleased to announce that Christopher C. Miller, "the highly respected" director of the National Counterterrorism Center, would become acting Secretary of Defense, "effective immediately."

"Mark Esper has been terminated," Trump tweeted. "I would like to thank him for his service."

Esper had opposed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, had actively pushed back on the president's money-focused desire to withdraw from NATO and blow up the U.S.-South Korea alliance. And had disagreed with the president about putting troops of the streets of America to suppress George Floyd-related demonstrations.

Trump had grown to hate Esper, but it was still startling for a lame duck president to fire the most consequential member of the cabinet—the civilian leader of the military, the person in the chain of command for everything including launching nuclear weapons.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows had called Esper earlier to tell him that the president was not happy with his performance, that he had not been sufficiently supportive, that Trump was going to announce the firing that very day. It was just a head's up.

You'll be replaced by Chris Miller, Meadows said.

Esper thought to himself "Who?" according to an account in "I Alone Can Fix It" by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker.

China Dodges Mike Milley Controversy
General Mark Milley and the Joint chiefs believed they had to protect the republic. General Milley with President Donald Trump in the Cabinet Room of the White House, on October 7, 2019. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

At the same time as the president's tweet went out, National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien called the Pentagon to inform Gen. Milley that Miller and his principal assistant Kash Patel would be at the building very soon. And at 2:15 p.m., Miller arrived.

The new acting secretary was a former special operations officer and had retired from the Army in 2014, going on to work for a defense contractor before joining the White House two years earlier. He wasn't close to the president, but he was considered a member of his loyal group: one of the most loyal and therefore most dangerous in the eyes of D.C. national security experts. Patel was a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and he had worked with the Congressman during his famous leak—obtained from White House staffers—that the government had collected intelligence on the Trump transition team and that their names had been "unmasked" and widely shared inside the Obama administration.

Though the intelligence was collected incidental to a Russia counterintelligence probe, Trump had a field day, claiming he was wiretapped by President Obama. The leak was followed by a Nunes memo alleging an FBI conspiracy against the new president. Patel was author of that memo, rising from a congressional aide to principal deputy to the Director of National Intelligence—a political appointment—before moving to the White House where, according to all accounts, he was a back-channel and spy for Donald Trump, circumventing the normal chain of command just as the president liked to do, and involving himself in matters beyond his formal portfolio.

And then announcements came out that two other Trump loyalists—retired Army General Anthony Tata, a Fox News pundit, and Ezra Cohen-Watnick, former assistant to Trump's first national security advisor, retired Gen. Michael Flynn—also were being appointed to top Pentagon posts.

At 2:30 in the afternoon, Milley met with the other military chiefs for an hour in the Tank, the super-secure room where personal matters and opinions can be openly discussed. All afternoon, his phone rang constantly—members of Congress, field commanders, retired military generals and admirals, personal friends, fellow officers and national security officials in other countries—all worried about what Esper's firing portended, curious about what Trump might be planning.

In the evening, Milley met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, confiding that he thought, according to Bob Woodward and Robert Costa's "Peril," that Trump was in "mental decline." Pompeo agreed.

A coup was gathering steam—but not necessarily in anything President Trump would or could actually do, nor on the part of the new Trump appointees. The coup was more on the part of Gen. Milley and other officials, the apolitical keepers of national security. They began taking action (for the good of the republic, as they saw it), doggedly continuing to run their departments, making decisions about the domestic situation and indeed the world, while the White House was paralyzed by its election fixation.

Some talked about the 25th Amendment, where the majority of the Cabinet could declare the president unfit and remove him. Some pondered the safeguards they could put in place if worse came to worse. Senior officers talked among themselves about their responsibility to the Constitution and their oaths.

In their minds, they had to be ready to protect the country; as Trump became more obsessed with the election, he abandoned any pretense of governing. The word "coup" may evoke some sunglasses-wearing general standing at a podium announcing that the military has deposed the civilian leadership for the good of the country. But circumventing and even ignoring the commander-in-chief and the chief executive, as the nation's most powerful security officials did, was a coup nonetheless.