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Should Generals Break the Rules to Stop a Rogue President?

·5 min read
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty

Seven months after leaving office, Hurricane Trump’s legacy continues to spew second-order sewage over America.

Consider the recent revelations about Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is now involved in his own controversy. The details are murky, but according to Peril, the new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Milley violated his authority by assuring his Chinese counterpart that the U.S. wouldn’t attack them. “If this is true,” tweeted Alexander Vindman, who served as a key witness in the first Trump impeachment trial, “GEN Milley must resign. He usurped civilian authority, broke Chain of Command, and violated the sacrosanct principle of civilian control over the military. It’s an extremely dangerous precedent. You can’t simply walk away from that.”

Vindman—the former Director for European Affairs for the U.S. National Security Council—has a point. America’s founders feared military coups so much that they insisted on civilian control of the military and even distrusted standing armies. But let’s be honest: Outrage over Milley is tempered by the sense that someone had to be ready in case Trump attempted a coup—or decided to push the nuclear button on his way out the door.

Trump Calls Allies to Demand Gen. Mark Milley Be ‘Arrested’ for ‘Treason’

This isn’t even the first time Milley has been portrayed as the man who stood in the gap. A couple of months ago, yet another 2020 “tell-all” book by Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker alleged that when an old friend warned Milley that Trump might attempt his own coup, the general replied: “They may try, but they’re not going to fucking succeed. You can’t do this without the military. You can’t do this without the CIA and the FBI. We’re the guys with guns.”

I remember thinking at the time how glad I was that Milley was there to stop Trump, just in case. We want him on that wall. We NEED him on that wall!

But my sense of relief was tempered by warning bells. To roughly paraphrase the old line about government, a general who is strong enough to save you is also big enough to take away everything that you have. Or, as The Daily Beast columnist Wajahat Ali so eloquently notes, “if our future choices come down to ‘right-wing coup’ or a ‘military coup to prevent a right-wing coup,’ we are f-cked.”

Indeed. Milley’s alleged conduct is viewed in the context of Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and insane presidency—which did, in fact, result in an insurrection in the U.S. Capitol whose aim was clearly to disrupt or stop the certification of an election.

Now, this situation is complicated by Milley’s role as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: in that capacity, he was specifically tasked with being an adviser to the president. Still, if Trump had gotten further with his Big Lie, would we prefer Milley deferred to him to preserve civilian rule of the military over preserving fair democratic elections? At what point would the military stop following Trump’s orders? Noon on Jan. 21?

Speaking of the insurrection, a lot of us made the point that if you truly believed the election had been stolen by Joe Biden, then storming the Capitol was not an entirely irrational act.

Based on that same logic, if you thought Trump was gravely endangering America (either by attempting a coup or by having access to nuclear weapons despite his erratic behavior), and you were in a position to do something about it, what would be the patriotic thing to do? Should you have followed protocol, or should you have done what you thought you had to do for the good of the republic? (The old Brutus conundrum!)

However well-intentioned, Milley’s reported behavior constitutes a violation of both his legal authority and of norms—but the fact that I am still grappling with this ethical conundrum is indicative of how dangerous Trump’s presidency was and continues to be. When the most powerful man in the world attempts the unthinkable, you can either let him steamroll you, or you can break your own norms to try to stop him.

And when you try to stop him, in a sense, you become as bad (and as dangerous) as him. In this regard, Trump hasn’t just tarnished the presidency or the GOP, he has compromised many of our democratic institutions and the professional political and military class.

In essence, Trump started an arms race that has altered the way the media covers politicians (many chose to ape Trump and his style), and the way Democrats conduct politics (many chose to ape Trump and his style—arguing that they have to break their own norms, too). It has also impacted the FBI (see Peter Strzok and Lisa Page), and, yes, the way high-ranking military leaders like Milley conduct themselves. For all of these institutions, Trump forced a choice between escalation and subjugation. And for anyone looking for an excuse to break the rules, he created a permission structure whereby doing so wasn’t just rationalized as acceptable, but as heroic.

Never mind that most of the norm-breaking was ostensibly done under the premise that it was needed to stop Trump. Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s hard to get it back in.

As such, Trump has not only created a case study for future would-be politicians who want to usurp power, he has created a permission structure for other stakeholders to operate outside the lines—so long as their cause is virtuous, of course. (And, of course, who gets to decide whether the cause is virtuous?) It’s hard to say where this might end.

I have confessed to being sympathetic to Milley’s plight, but I wonder if Joe Biden might have helped send a message by firing him. Instead, Biden expressed “great confidence” in him.

It goes without saying the American people shouldn’t let Trump within a hundred miles of the White House, again, but that’s just the start. Breaking this cycle will require some truly remarkable people to exercise forbearance.

It’s too early to tell whether the storm will pass and the waters will recede. But one thing’s for sure: This is a shit storm of Trump’s making.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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