So, the Washington Post is promoting a new book by two of its best reporters, or this is an important news story anyway. Perhaps it’s both. Perhaps everyone needs to know what happened. This was too close to the end of our democracy. This is what happened:
In the waning weeks of Donald Trump’s term, the country’s top military leader repeatedly worried about what the president might do to maintain power after losing reelection, comparing his rhetoric to Adolf Hitler’s during the rise of Nazi Germany and asking confidants whether a coup was forthcoming, according to a new book by two Washington Post reporters.
That top military leader was worried.:
As Trump ceaselessly pushed false claims about the 2020 presidential election, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, grew more and more nervous, telling aides he feared that the president and his acolytes might attempt to use the military to stay in office, Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker report in I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year.
Milley described “a stomach-churning” feeling as he listened to Trump’s untrue complaints of election fraud, drawing a comparison to the 1933 attack on Germany’s parliament building that Hitler used as a pretext to establish a Nazi dictatorship.
“This is a moment,” Milley told aides, according to the book. “The gospel of the Führer.”
The Reichstag Fire in 1933 is rather famous – chaos and violence, instigated by Hitler, that then provided him the reason he needed to take over everything, because there was so much chaos and violence everywhere. He made sure if that. He would make things right. He alone could fix it all. Milley remembered. The new book shows that:
Portions of the book related to Milley – first reported Wednesday night by CNN ahead of the book’s July 20 release – offer a remarkable window into the thinking of America’s highest-ranking military officer, who saw himself as one of the last empowered defenders of democracy during some of the darkest days in the country’s recent history.
That was the challenge:
Milley – who was widely criticized last year for appearing alongside Trump in Lafayette Square after protesters were forcibly cleared from the area – had pledged to use his office to ensure a free and fair election with no military involvement. But he became increasingly concerned in the days following the November contest, making multiple references to the onset of 20th-century fascism.
After attending a Nov. 10 security briefing about the “Million MAGA March,” a pro-Trump rally protesting the election, Milley said he feared an American equivalent of “brownshirts in the streets,” alluding to the paramilitary forces that protected Nazi rallies and enabled Hitler’s ascent.
Late that same evening, according to the book, an old friend called Milley to express concerns that those close to Trump were attempting to “overturn the government.”
“You are one of the few guys who are standing between us and some really bad stuff,” the friend told Milley, according to an account relayed to his aides. Milley was shaken, Leonnig and Rucker write, and he called former national security adviser H. R. McMaster to ask whether a coup was actually imminent.
“What the f— am I dealing with?” Milley asked him.
McMaster had worked for Trump until he just couldn’t work for Trump any longer. McMaster knows Trump. McMaster told Milley what Milley was dealing with:
The conversations put Milley on edge, and he began informally planning with other military leaders, strategizing how they would block Trump’s order to use the military in a way they deemed dangerous or illegal.
If someone wanted to seize control, Milley thought, they would need to gain sway over the FBI, the CIA and the Defense Department, where Trump had already installed staunch allies. “They may try, but they’re not going to f—ing succeed,” he told some of his closest deputies, the book says.
Trump was putting his own guys in key positions everywhere, even if this was in his last few days or even hours in office. He could flip the CIA and DoD and FBI and take his presidency back from the government that had certified that he lost. Something was up:
In December, with rumors circulating that the president was preparing to fire then-CIA Director Gina Haspel and replace her with Trump loyalist Kash Patel, Milley sought to intervene, the book says. He confronted White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows at the annual Army-Navy football game, which Trump and other high-profile guests attended.
“What the hell is going on here?” Milley asked Meadows, according to the book’s account. “What are you guys doing?”
When Meadows responded, “Don’t worry about it,” Milley shot him a warning: “Just be careful.”
Milley knew something was up, but he tried to keep everyone else calm:
After the failed insurrection on Jan. 6, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called Milley to ask for his guarantee that Trump would not be able to launch a nuclear strike and start a war.
“This guy’s crazy,” Pelosi said of Trump in what the book reported was mostly a one-way phone call. “He’s dangerous. He’s a maniac.”
Once again, Milley sought to reassure: “Ma’am, I guarantee you that we have checks and balances in the system,” he told Pelosi.
That was for show, and this was not:
Less than a week later, as military and law enforcement leaders planned for President Biden’s inauguration, Milley said he was determined to avoid a repeat of the siege on the Capitol.
“Everyone in this room, whether you’re a cop, whether you’re a soldier, we’re going to stop these guys to make sure we have a peaceful transfer of power,” he told them. “We’re going to put a ring of steel around this city and the Nazis aren’t getting in.”
There he said it. He used that word. He’d stop the Nazis. America could be saved:
In the weeks that followed, Milley played reassuring soothsayer to a string of concerned members of Congress and administration officials who shared his worries about Trump attempting to use the military to stay in office.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” he told them, according to the book. “We’re going to have a peaceful transfer of power. We’re going to land this plane safely. This is America. It’s strong. The institutions are bending, but it won’t break.”
But it had been a close call, and CNN added more detail to the story:
Milley and the other Joint Chiefs discussed a plan to resign, one-by-one, rather than carry out orders from Trump that they considered to be illegal, dangerous or ill-advised.
“It was a kind of Saturday Night Massacre in reverse,” Leonnig and Rucker write.
The plan? Give that Trump guy no one to command. One by one they disappear. He ends up talking to himself. But that might not be enough:
Milley spoke to friends, lawmakers and colleagues about the threat of a coup, and the Joint Chiefs chairman felt he had to be “on guard” for what might come.
“They may try, but they’re not going to f**king succeed,” Milley told his deputies, according to the authors. “You can’t do this without the military. You can’t do this without the CIA and the FBI. We’re the guys with the guns.”
In the days leading up to January 6, Leonnig and Rucker write, Milley was worried about Trump’s call to action. “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.”
Milley viewed Trump as “the classic authoritarian leader with nothing to lose,” the authors write.
But that means he dropped all pretense that he was doing the job:
The book also sheds new light on Trump’s descent into a dark and isolated vacuum of conspiracy theories and self-serving delusions after he was declared the loser of the 2020 election.
After the January 6 insurrection, the book says Milley held a conference call each day with Meadows and then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Leonnig and Rucker report the officials used the calls to compare notes and “collectively survey the horizon for trouble.”
“The general theme of these calls was, come hell or high water, there will be a peaceful transfer of power on January twentieth,” one senior official told the authors. “We’ve got an aircraft, our landing gear is stuck, we’ve got one engine, and we’re out of fuel. We’ve got to land this bad boy.”
They’d do their duty. They’d save the day. But this would be messy.
The book details a phone call the day after the January 6 insurrection between Milley and Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who has close military ties. Cheney voted to impeach Trump and has been an outspoken critic of his election lies, leading to her ouster from House GOP leadership.
Milley asked Cheney how she was doing.
“That fucking guy Jim Jordan. That son of a bitch,” Cheney said, according to the book.
Cheney bluntly relayed to Milley what she experienced on the House floor on January 6 while pro-Trump rioters overran police and breached the Capitol building, including a run-in with Jordan, a staunch Trump ally in the House who feverishly tried to overturn the election.
Cheney described to Milley her exchange with Jordan: “While these maniacs are going through the place, I’m standing in the aisle and he said, ‘We need to get the ladies away from the aisle. Let me help you.’ I smacked his hand away and told him, ‘Get away from me. You fucking did this.’”
And there’s this:
The book quotes Trump, who had a strained relationship with Merkel, as telling his advisers during an Oval Office meeting about NATO and the US relationship with Germany, “That bitch Merkel.”
“‘I know the fucking krauts,’ the president added, using a derogatory term for German soldiers from World War I and World War II,”
Leonnig and Rucker write. “Trump then pointed to a framed photograph of his father, Fred Trump, displayed on the table behind the Resolute Desk and said, ‘I was raised by the biggest kraut of them all.’”
No more need be said, other than this:
After January 6, Milley participated in a drill with military and law enforcement leaders to prepare for the January 20 inauguration of President Joe Biden. Washington was on lockdown over fears that far-right groups like the Proud Boys might try to violently disrupt the transfer of power.
Milley told a group of senior leaders, “Here’s the deal, guys: These guys are Nazis, they’re boogaloo boys, they’re Proud Boys. These are the same people we fought in World War II. We’re going to put a ring of steel around this city and the Nazis aren’t getting in.”
That’s clear enough. No Nazis now. No Nazis ever.
But that’s not enough. Sarah Burris reports this:
Journalist Michael Wolff’s new book, Landslide, describes Jared Kushner’s role over the four years in office as staffing up the White House with his own loyalists who could circumvent Trump’s demands.
What? He was one of the good guys? That’s the argument here:
“The four-year history of the Trump White House was, in one sense, the unlikely story of the rise and strange effectiveness of Jared Kushner,” wrote Wolff. “Much of the West Wing and campaign staffs were made up of people whom Jared had picked. Their common characteristic was that, while they were tolerant of Trump, they could be counted on to slow-walk his worst excesses; some, acting for Kushner, even often sought to put a brake on them. Kushner, both for temperamental and strategic reasons, would not, in almost any circumstance, directly confront his father-in-law.”
Since leaving the White House, Jared Kushner and Donald Trump haven’t been as close as they were during the previous four years.
Things must be tense:
The book describes Kushner putting in layers of intentional bureaucracy that would delay and distract Trump. The book explained that such a “lag” in action “allowed the president’s short attention span to pass.”
“Everything that happened in the Trump White House was a product of the president’s fevered impulses: a combination of resentments, dramatic flair, score settling, lack of knowledge or understanding, and a sense of what moved his audience,” wrote Wolff. “But this was filtered through a management system Jared had created to lower the immediate temperature precisely to the point where the president would not notice and Jared would not be blamed.
One of Kushner’s own consistent justifications for his role, and one of his stated reasons for being in his father-in-law’s White House, was that he made things less bad than they would otherwise have been.
Fine, but things were still bad, and they did get worse:
In an interview with MSNBC Tuesday, Wolff explained that it was Jared and Ivanka’s absence in wake of the 2020 election that allowed fanatics like Rudy Giuliani to move into the inner circle of influencers. It could ultimately be why Trump refused to accept his loss.
Now, six months since Trump has left the White House, Kushner and Trump aren’t working together. Kushner told allies that it was to preserve their family relationship. Kushner is working on his book, with a handsome offer from publishers that Trump appears to be jealous of.
This will not end well:
Some of the sources claim that Kushner is “done with his father-in-law’s antics.” Those close to Trump say that the former president is “angry with his son-in-law over the election loss.” Trump has even confided in friends that he faults Kushner for losing.
It likely won’t help when Trump learns that Kushner intentionally put up those barriers, to stop his demands.
There will be angry shouting, and that won’t be Jared shouting. That might be now the actual president now:
Hear me clearly: There is an unfolding assault taking place in America today – an attempt to suppress and subvert the right to vote in fair and free elections, an assault on democracy, an assault on liberty, an assault on who we are – who we are as Americans.
For, make no mistake, bullies and merchants of fear and peddlers of lies are threatening the very foundation of our country.
It gives me no pleasure to say this. I never thought in my entire career I’d ever have to say it …
The assault on free and fair elections is just such a threat, literally. I’ve said it before: We’re are facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War. That’s not hyperbole.
And then there’s W’s speechwriter David Frum:
Through the Trump years, it seemed sensible to eschew comparisons to the worst passages of history. I repeated over and over again a warning against too-easy use of the F-word, fascism: “There are a lot of stops on the train line to bad before you get to Hitler Station.”
Two traits have historically marked off European-style fascism from more homegrown American traditions of illiberalism: contempt for legality and the cult of violence. Presidential-era Trumpism operated through at least the forms of law. Presidential-era Trumpism glorified military power, not mob attacks on government institutions.
Post-presidentially, those past inhibitions are fast dissolving. The conversion of Ashli Babbitt into a martyr, a sort of American Horst Wessel, expresses the transformation. Through 2020, Trump had endorsed deadly force against lawbreakers: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he tweeted on May 29, 2020. Babbitt broke the law too, but not to steal a TV. She was killed as she tried to disrupt the constitutional order, to prevent the formalization of the results of a democratic election.
And there’s Jonathan Chait:
The anti-anti-Trump right has dismissed the insurrection as overblown, a protest march gone bad, perhaps ill-considered but never posing any serious threat to the republic. The far right’s highlighting of Babbitt’s death sends a different message: The insurrection was good. Babbitt’s effort to penetrate the defensive barrier was brave, and the stopping of her charge a crime.
By throwing himself behind this message, Trump is endorsing the most radical interpretation of his presidency. January 6 was not a minor misstep after a successful era, as fans like Mike Pence and Lindsey Graham now say. It was the heroic culmination of a righteous uprising.
It was a coup. It failed. The next one won’t. That’s the gospel of the Führer. Now what?