Pentagon and Washington-area military leaders are on red alert, wary of what President Donald Trump might do in his remaining days in office. Though far-fetched, ranking officers have discussed what they would do if the president declared martial law. And military commands responsible for Washington DC are engaged in secret contingency planning in case the armed forces are called upon to maintain or restore civil order during the inauguration and transition period. According to one officer who spoke to Newsweek on condition of anonymity, the planning is being kept out of sight of the White House and Trump loyalists in the Pentagon for fear that it would be shut down.
“I’ve been associated with the military for over 40 years and I’ve never seen the discussions that are being had right now, the need for such discussions,” says a retired flag officer, currently a defense contractor who has mentored and advised his service’s senior leaders. He was granted anonymity in order to speak without fear of reprisal.
A half-dozen officers in similar positions agree that while there is zero chance that the uniformed leadership would involve itself in any scheme to create an election-related reversal, they worry that the military could get sucked into a crisis of Trump’s making, particularly if the president tries to rally private militias and pro-Trump paramilitaries in an effort to disrupt the transition and bring violence to the capital.
“Right now, because of coronavirus,” one retired judge advocate general says, “the president actually has unprecedented emergency powers, ones that might convince him—particularly if he listens to certain of his supporters—that he has unlimited powers and is above the law.”
“But martial law,” says the lawyer, “is the wrong paradigm to think about the dangers ahead.” Though such a presidential proclamation could flow from his order as commander-in-chief, an essential missing ingredient is the martial side: the involvement and connivance of some cabal of officers who would support the president’s illegal move.
Such a group doesn’t exist, he and other experts agree, but there could still be room for mischief, confusion, and even use of military force. It would just not be in the way Trump might intend, particularly if he continues his quest to destabilize the democratic process.
“There is no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of an American election,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Army Chief of Staff General James McConville said in a joint statement last Friday.
Yet while the Pentagon officially responded to Newsweek’s queries with various quotes from defense leaders that the military has no role to…
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