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WASHINGTON — As an angry mob stormed the barricades of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday afternoon, sending lawmakers and their staffs fleeing for their lives, the government was temporarily paralyzed by confusion over who was in charge. The Capitol Police and the mayor of Washington, D.C., pleaded for help from the National Guard, but the Pentagon was reluctant to respond after criticism over deploying troops against protesters in Washington last summer.
Finally Vice President Mike Pence, from a secure, undisclosed location where he took shelter with leaders of Congress, reached out directly to acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley. National Guard troops from neighboring states were activated, but by then the Capitol building had been overrun.
Missing in action at that critical moment on one of the darkest days in U.S. history was the commander in chief. President Trump had explicitly summoned his supporters to Washington for a “wild” time, and then fired them up with a bellicose speech at the Ellipse and sent them marching toward the Capitol, where a joint session was convening to count the Electoral College votes that would give the presidential election to Joe Biden. Afterward Trump retreated to the White House to watch his handiwork play out on television. Close aides pleaded with him to call off the mob and come to the defense of the seat of government that his oath of office required him to defend.
Those critical hours on the afternoon of Jan. 6, 2021, when senior political and military officials tacitly acknowledged with their actions that the chain of command had been broken at the top, reveal the great peril the nation still finds itself in from an increasingly erratic and borderline delusional commander in chief. It is reminiscent of the final days of another unstable president — Richard Nixon — when Defense Secretary James Schlesinger instructed uniformed military leaders to check with him before executing any direct orders from the commander in chief involving nuclear weapons.
“In light of the storming of the Capitol building by Trump supporters, enough doubt has now been cast on the competence and fitness of the president that I’m sure the question is being asked whether a ‘Schlesinger’-type check is necessary,” retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, former commander of U.S. Central Command, told Yahoo News. “Before they execute any order that comes directly from President Trump in the next 13 days, the Joint Chiefs chairman and combatant commanders will first want legal verification that it is a lawful order, because they can disobey an illegal order.”
In fact, the question was raised by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who called Milley on Friday to discuss precautions to prevent Trump from accessing the nuclear launch codes.
Gen. John Kelly, Trump’s former White House chief of staff, added his voice to a chorus of political leaders on Capitol Hill calling for invoking the 25th Amendment to immediately remove Trump from office and put the levers of power — including the one that controls the military — out of his reach.
“Throughout his tenure, but especially since losing the election in November, President Trump has proven himself dangerously erratic and volatile, talking with advisers about invoking the Insurrection Act and declaring martial law to rerun the election, and provoking his supporters into that shameless scene we saw at the Capitol this week,” said former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Along with every other living former secretary of defense, from both Republican and Democratic administrations, Hagel felt alarmed enough about Trump’s behavior to recently sign a letter calling for a peaceful transition of power to the incoming Biden administration, and insisting that the U.S. military has no role in determining the outcome of U.S. elections.
“By all accounts Trump is angry and increasingly isolated in the White House, with many of his top staff either resigning or thinking about resigning, to include Cabinet officials and his deputy national security adviser and national security adviser, which suggests that he is in a very unstable mindset and not taking counsel from anyone,” said Hagel. “Remember that he is still the commander in chief of the armed forces, with immense powers, and no one can now be sure what this president is capable of. That’s a very dangerous situation.”
Zinni noted that military commanders “can also first seek advice from an array of civilian leaders, to include the service secretaries, the secretary of defense and the vice president. Though they are not in the direct chain of command, senior leaders in Congress would also likely be consulted before any such order involving significant military force was executed.”
In light of rising tensions in the Persian Gulf region with Iran, a number of senior national security experts are also worried about a “wag the dog” scenario in which Trump seeks to distract from a disastrous week and burnish his damaged legacy with a military strike against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Withdrawing the United States from the Iran nuclear accord is a major part of his foreign policy legacy, one he knows Biden plans to reverse.
This week Iran announced it was enriching uranium to levels banned under the nuclear accord, moving closer to being able to produce a nuclear weapon. In response to rising tensions surrounding the anniversary of the U.S. strike that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, the Pentagon recently sent nuclear-weapons-capable B-52 bombers to the region and redeployed the Nimitz aircraft carrier battle group to the Persian Gulf. There have also been media reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the president’s closest confidants on the international stage, has been pressuring Trump to consider a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities before he leaves office.
“The outrage at the Capitol this week has sobered a lot of people, and I think the U.S. military would resist launching an attack and starting a war with Iran, but there are high tensions and a lot of U.S. firepower in the region, and I very much worry that the Iranians might do something stupid or inadvertent that triggers a response,” said former Defense Secretary William Cohen. “I have no doubt that President Trump is itching to strike out at Iran and looking for any excuse, because he wants to leave a mess for Biden to clean up.”
The potential for such an escalation is weighing on the minds of military commanders in the Middle East and elsewhere.
“If you are commanding a battle group or warship in the region at this moment, you are concerned because there are all sorts of battle plans that President Trump could dust off and attempt to execute, creating a real crisis for military leaders throughout the chain of command,” said retired Adm. Charles “Steve” Abbot, former commander of the U.S. Sixth Fleet. “President Trump has made clear that he is a man for whom vengeance is a deeply felt motivator, and that makes him a very dangerous person in his remaining days in office. The country is at risk.”
There are other, more subtle ways Trump could do lasting damage to U.S. national security in the coming days. An abiding characteristic of his tenure that has alarmed senior U.S. military and intelligence officials is his obvious affinity for strongmen and dictators, especially Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his undisciplined approach to classified information. Intelligence officials have not forgotten the day in 2017 when Trump invited Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak to the Oval Office, where he shared highly classified intelligence with them. They also remember the infamous Helsinki conference in 2018, where Trump publicly sided with Putin in denying Russian election interference, contradicting senior U.S. intelligence officials.
Trump’s own Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was convinced that Putin had some compromising intelligence or leverage over Trump, though he was unable to prove it, according to veteran journalist and author Bob Woodward. The question posed by Trump remaining in the Oval Office and nursing endless grievances about a “stolen election,” and the “very special” people he loves who ransacked the Capitol this week, is whether he still has information to privately share with favored members of the strongmen’s club.
James Kitfield is senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, and author of “Twilight Warriors: The Soldiers, Spies, & Special Agents Who Are Revolutionizing the American Way of War.”
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