The Road to Jan 6 Final

'We Are On the Way to a Right-wing Coup,' the CIA Director Privately Warned

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

It was the president's first public appearance since the election—apart from his golf outings. On Veterans Day, November 11, Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Ceremony. It was a somber occasion amid a steady rain, shadowed by the president's refusal to concede the election and by his firing of Secretary of Defense Mark Esper so close to a transition.

Trump and Pence, accompanied by their wives, were late; their motorcade arrived well after the ceremony had started. The Army honor guard had already gone through most of their drill and the 21-gun salute rang out as the country's elected leaders were driving up.

At the appointed moment, Trump walked to the wreath and laid a hand on it before returning to his spot to stand for the rest of the ceremony, about a half-hour. He made no public remarks, according to the White House pool reporters there.

Donald Trump November 11 2020 Arlington Cemetery
Four days after the U.S. news media declared that Joe Biden had won the White House, President Donald Trump attended a "National Day of Observance" ceremony on November 11, 2020 at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Unlike most years, this Veterans Day ceremony was not open to the public because of COVID. The cemetery website stated that masks were required for all visitors, but neither Trump nor anyone in his inner circle wore one.

Trump was already at war with Arlington cemetery. When he heard that the annual holiday wreath event, where thousands of volunteers lay holiday wreaths on every headstone in the cemetery, was not scheduled to take place that year, he had tweeted that he "reversed the ridiculous decision to cancel Wreaths Across America."

Despite the rules, and despite COVID, after Trump's tweet the Army reversed its decision to cancel the event and announced that it had found a "safe" plan. In fact, the Army had consulted public health officials who advised against holding the event, even though it was outside.

Among the large Pentagon entourage in attendance at the cemetery were Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

On election night, Milley had received a private call, according to the book "I Alone Can Fix It," in which a uniformed colleague—a fellow four-star and close friend—reminded the top general that he and the military had an apolitical role in the post-election fracas.

"Your loyalty is to the Constitution," the caller said. "You represent the stability of this republic." Former Secretary Esper also told Milley that he hoped the outcome of the election would be crystal clear from the margin of victory, fearing that anything less might provide President Trump an excuse to refuse to leave the White House, or more important, to call out the military.

Since Esper's firing, General Milley had heard rumors that one of Trump's loyalists planted at the Pentagon told a colleague that they had to "take Milley out." Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy also thought Milley would be fired, as did the general's wife.

Milley was taken aback by the prospect of such an unprecedented action, afraid that he was witnessing the unfolding of a coup. CIA Director Gina Haspel, who also expected to be fired, shared his fear. "We are on the way to a right-wing coup," she told Milley.

In the "tank," the military-only chamber famous for deliberations and private discussion, the seven joint chiefs, plus Milley and the vice chairman, quietly and privately began talking about what their options would be if they had to block an unlawful order from the commander-in-chief. According to a retired general officer who spoke to one of the participants, in the tank the discussions were frank and emotional. "They grappled with wide-ranging questions," the senior officer said. "Not just how to protect the republic should Trump threaten, but also ways to protect the military institution, a goal that didn't always easily mesh with what needed to get done."

"We are on the way to a rightwing coup," CIA Director Gina Haspel warned. Here, Haspel at her Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill on May 9. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

After the ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, acting secretary Miller and Gen. Milley went on to a celebration at the new National Museum of the United States Army. Speaking of the history of the armed forces and the role that the military played in American society, nonpartisan and now "professional," Milley drew his line in the sand.

"We are unique among militaries," he said in his speech. "We do not take an oath to a king or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual. No, we do not take an oath to a country, a tribe or religion. We take an oath to the Constitution. And every soldier that is represented in this museum, every sailor, airman, Marine, Coast Guardsman, each of us will protect and defend that document, regardless of personal price."

When Chris Miller got up to speak after Milley, he thanked the general for "setting the bar very high."

"I think all I would say to your statements is, 'Amen, well done,'" he said.

Meanwhile on television, retired four-star Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey also voiced what many in the brass were thinking, warning that Americans were "watching a slow-moving Trump coup to defy the Biden election and refuse to leave office by diktat."

What was unfolding, though, was unique among coups. Nobody really thought the disorganized and isolated Trump was capable of organizing anything. And the president didn't have the support of the military or the CIA or the FBI, or any of the other national security agencies, perhaps, with the exception of the Department of Homeland Security, which had become embarrassingly partisan. Milley even remarked privately that a coup wasn't possible because his camp had all the guns—a comment that was both comforting and chilling, one that showed how perilous the post-election period had become.

Ultimately, the uniformed military and other permanent national security professionals did take it upon themselves to decide how to defend the nation from this prospective coup, disregarding the new secretary and the other Trump cronies filling leadership positions in the Pentagon. Miller was ignored except in cases where the Secretary of Defense's approval or signature was required. Flouting the hallowed tradition of civilian control of the military that is at the core of the Constitution, and ignoring the commander-in-chief, Milley set the uniformed military as a bulwark against disaster.

As self-appointed protectors of the nation, the military took on powers that are not in the Constitution. The armed forces are barely mentioned in the document and no powers are given to them to protect the sanctity of any vote. And until the inauguration on January 20, Donald Trump was the president and commander in chief: Trump's cabinet, the Congress and the Supreme Court were the appropriate place to look if presidential powers or behavior demanded action.

President Trump could at least in theory have launched a nuclear first strike on China. Because of his evident impulsiveness, proposals had been introduced in Congress to reduce his powers, to change the reliance on a single decision-maker. But post-election, the situation became more alarming. The only other person in the civilian chain of command who on paper could thwart a presidential order was the new secretary of defense, essentially unknown.

Gen. Milley wasn't formally in that chain of command, merely the "principal military advisor" to the president and a commander of nothing. Still, he had enormous influence over the entire military and could urge others to refuse an order. Military officers at the White House who would have to physically transmit a presidential order could disagree. Once transmitted, an order from the White House could also be opposed by the four-star commander of the U.S. Strategic Command—and then, even if made it past the Omaha-based command, every missile launch crew, submarine commander and bomber pilot ordered to launch a bolt-out-of-the blue would have to search their hearts and reflect on their oaths.

This set of officers, nevertheless, weren't the only chain. Over decades of worry about a Soviet first strike, the government's nuclear priesthood had designated alternate presidents—for the Pentagon, for Strategic Command, secreted away in bunkers and aboard airborne command posts across America—who under certain conditions could take over (especially if communications were lost) to circumvent the official procedures and institute their own. This safety net was deeply classified, but it certainly scrambled what might happen. And there were other secret and little known alternative apparatuses—continuity of government systems fiercely guarding the survival of the president, Presidential Emergency Action Documents, secret military and federal law enforcement units—that were autonomous enough and certainly presented many question marks.

In the end though, many in the military and national security establishment believed—as did much of the public—that Donald Trump's last line of defense was that he firmly controlled his fanatical base. By this reasoning, containing him would neutralize the mob: thus the necessity for the silent coup.

Just eight weeks later it was clear that while Trump could fuel the fire, he could not douse it.