Just Security claimed on Tuesday that one of the main reasons the National Guard took several hours to arrive during the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol was that senior military officials were afraid former President Donald Trump would re-direct them to help him seize control and obstruct the peaceful transition of power.
One of the most perplexing aspects of the Jan. 6 incident is why it took the National Guard more than three hours to arrive at the Capitol after D.C. authorities and Capitol Police requested immediate assistance. The Pentagon’s reluctance to allow the Guard to enter the Capitol was not simply a reflection of officials’ concerns about the deployment of military force during the summer 2020 protests, nor was it simply a concern about the “optics” of having military personnel present. Instead, evidence is mounting that the most senior defense officials were hesitant to send troops to the Capitol because they were concerned that President Donald Trump would use the presence of the forces to consolidate power.
According to a report released last month, Christopher Miller, who took over as acting Secretary of Defense on Jan. 6, told the Defense Department’s inspector general that he feared “if we put U.S. military personnel on the Capitol, I would have created the greatest Constitutional crisis probably since the Civil War.” In congressional testimony, he stated that he was aware of “fears that the President would invoke the Insurrection Act to politicize the military in an anti-democratic manner” and that “factored into my decisions regarding the appropriate and limited use of our Armed Forces to support civilian law enforcement during the Electoral College certification.”
Miller does not say who was concerned that Trump would use the Insurrection Act, and he was not questioned by Congress. However, it is now clear that such concerns were shared by both General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and former CIA Director and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the time. Milley and Pompeo confided in one another before the election that they were concerned Trump would try to use the military to maintain power if he lost, according to the Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker. “This military will not be used,” Milley reassured Pompeo.
“Milley told his staff that he believed Trump was stoking unrest, possibly in hopes of an excuse to invoke the Insurrection Act and call out the military,” Leonnig and Rucker write, after Trump issued a Dec. 19, 2020 call to action to his supporters to come to DC to protest the certification of the electoral college vote on Jan. 6 (“Be there, will be wild!”).
Milley, according to multiple reports, “feared it was Trump’s ‘Reichstag moment,’ in which, like Adolf Hitler in 1933, he would manufacture a crisis in order to swoop in and rescue the nation from it.”
The top officials’ concerns were justified: Donald Trump, his close advisers, and a group of Republican political figures have openly discussed invoking the Insurrection Act or using the military to prevent the transfer of power based on false claims that the election was “stolen.” However, the Pentagon’s actions with regard to the National Guard point to a scenario in which, as a result of such concerns, a potentially profound crisis of command may have occurred on Jan. 6.
Close observers of the Jan. 6 events have primarily proposed two explanations for the delay in mobilizing the Guard. The first explanation is that the military’s procedures that day were marred by bureaucratic failures or managerial flaws. A second explanation is that the military was purposefully withholding assistance to aid Trump’s effort to interfere with the election.
We identify a third explanation: senior military officials limited the mobilization and deployment of the National Guard in order to avoid injecting federal troops that the President could have re-missioned to advance his attempt to retain power.
In terms of Jan. 6 planning, publicly available evidence strongly suggests that senior defense officials’ concerns led them to impose unprecedented constraints on authorizations and substantive conditions for use of the Guard – Miller admitted as much. These constraints help to explain the significant delay in dispatching the first group of Guardsmen to the Capitol. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that the same concerns could explain why the Pentagon did not approve the deployment of the National Guard in a timely manner – and, in fact, only authorized the deployment after President Trump made a public announcement (at 4:17 p.m.) that he was not in favor of continued occupation of the Capitol.
If the third scenario is correct, it raises fundamental constitutional concerns about the transfer of power:
Under what circumstances might the US military attempt to subvert the President’s will (even if one ethically agrees with the difficult choices made by the Pentagon prior to and on January 6)?
What information did senior officials have about President Trump’s potential use of the military to maintain power, and who else did they suspect was involved in such a scheme?
In response to a comment request, a Defense Department spokesman stated, “The Department has been transparent with regard to the planning and execution timeline for its response to the events of Jan 6,” and referred to “Given that the events leading up to and including the incident at the Capitol are still under investigation by Congress, it is not appropriate for the Department to comment further at this time.”
What was at stake was avoiding an illegal presidential order and foiling a potential plot to undermine the peaceful transfer of power. In the end, the Pentagon’s decisions may have been best for the country, even if they prolonged the period during which Congress was in jeopardy.
In response to the protests following the murder of George Floyd in June 2020, then-President Donald Trump indicated his willingness to deploy the United States military in American cities.
According to one report, Trump instructed the military to “beat the fuck out of” Black Lives Matter protesters. “Just shoot them,” he allegedly instructed Milley and his Attorney General, William Barr.
White House aides reportedly went so far as to draft a proclamation on June 1, 2020, to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807, which allows the president to use military forces to “suppress” major civil unrest.
Trump reportedly demanded that 10,000 active-duty troops be deployed to the streets of Washington, D.C. and other cities at the time, but then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley objected.
These demands came immediately before the President’s photo op with both men in Lafayette Park, for which Milley, the country’s top military official, later apologized, noting that his “presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”
The next day, Esper held a press conference at the Pentagon, where he discussed the role of the Department of Defense in the nationwide protests and stated his opposition to using the Insurrection Act to deploy troops to American cities. Esper did not apologize, but did say that he tried to remain apolitical, but that “sometimes I’m successful at doing that, and sometimes I’m not as successful.”
According to ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl’s book Betrayal, Esper and Milley were summoned to the White House following these events, where the President expressed anger over the statement and reminded them that the decision to invoke the Insurrection Act was solely the President’s.
Trump ordered troops from the 82nd Airborne Division to be stationed 30 minutes outside of Washington, D.C., but within days, Secretary Esper was able to persuade Trump to reverse that order and have the troops begin withdrawing, “temporarily easing a contentious standoff with the Pentagon.”
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