Fears that a possible slow-motion coup is in progress in the United States continued to grow on Wednesday, as observers sounded the alarm over President Donald Trump's decision to install "extreme Republican partisans" at the Pentagon after his firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper resulted in resignations by numerous top officials at the department earlier this week.
The stacking of the Pentagon with Trump loyalists—combined with the president's ongoing refusal to accept his electoral defeat and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's Tuesday comment that "there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration"—has heightened concerns about the Republican Party's authoritarianism and left experts and lawmakers warning that the country is in the midst of an extremely dangerous moment.
The Guardian reported that defense experts believe "there was little the new Trump appointees could do to use their positions to the president's advantage" given that high-ranking military leaders, including General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have vowed to keep the armed forces out of the political process.
Nevertheless, others view this week's personnel changes, which amount to the appointment of pro-Trump officials to key national security roles during the interregnum, as more evidence that Trump intends to use what one current defense official called "dictator moves" to cling to power despite receiving more than five million fewer votes than President-elect Joe Biden, who—based on current results reported by the Associated Press and other outlets—won the Electoral College by a margin of 290 to 217.
"If this is the beginning of a trend—the president either firing or forcing out national security professionals in order to replace them with people perceived as more loyal to him—then the next 70 days will be precarious at best and downright dangerous at worst."
—Rep. Adam Smith
Appearing on CNN Tuesday night, William Cohen, former Secretary of Defense and Republican senator, told network host Don Lemon the president's conduct is "more akin to a dictatorship than a democracy."
"It is hard to overstate just how dangerous high-level turnover at the Department of Defense is during a period of presidential transition," wrote Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, on Tuesday.
The development, he said, "should alarm all Americans."
"If this is the beginning of a trend—the president either firing or forcing out national security professionals in order to replace them with people perceived as more loyal to him—then the next 70 days will be precarious at best and downright dangerous at worst," Smith added.
"Defense Secretary Mark Esper... was just the beginning," wrote Spencer Ackerman, senior national security correspondent at The Daily Beast, on Tuesday night. "Also out are Esper's chief of staff Jen Stewart and the Pentagon's top officials for policy and intelligence [James Anderson and Joseph Kernan]."
Ackerman explained that Trump is rushing to fill the recently "purged Pentagon" with "infamous MAGA figures" who are faithful to the president.
Esper was replaced by Chris Miller, previously the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, even though, as Ackerman reported, the "law unambiguously mandates" that David Norquist, the deputy secretary of defense, should have been named acting secretary.
Ackerman reported that Miller's chief of staff is Kash Patel, who—as a senior aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.)—"crafted a dubious memo, denounced by the FBI, to discredit the origins of the investigation into the Trump team's contacts with Russia."
"The new acting undersecretary for policy," Ackerman noted, "is Anthony Tata, who called Barack Obama a 'terrorist leader' in 2018 and claimed Obama is secretly Muslim."
In response to the appointment of Tata, Scott Simpson, public advocacy director at the civil rights organization Muslim Advocates, said in a statement that "every day that he serves as undersecretary of Defense is a day where all Americans are in danger."
Finally, "the top Pentagon official for intelligence is now Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a former National Security Council (NSC) aide to the convicted Mike Flynn."
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) described Cohen-Watnick as a "34 year-old who... advocated for the CIA to orchestrate an overthrow [of] the Iranian regime...[and] was promptly fired from his job as soon as Gen. McMasters took over."
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"That Ezra Cohen-Watnick is the acting undersecretary of defense for intelligence would be comical if it weren't so terrifying," a former NSC official in the Trump White House told Ackerman.
Murphy sounded the alarm on Tuesday night, tweeting that "the purge happening at the Department of Defense, in the middle of a messy transition, should worry us all."
Could be smoke. Could be fire. But the purge happening at the Department of Defense, in the middle of a messy transition, should worry us all. Michael Flynn loyalists and Fox news personalities now populate some of the most important Pentagon posts.https://t.co/m9y0VaFwIO
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) November 11, 2020
"This is the making of a coup," warned author Keith Boykin, pointing not only to Trump's reshuffling of the Pentagon but also to the president's refusal to concede following his election loss as well as the dishonesty and complicity of Pompeo and Attorney General Barr.
The President denies he lost the election.
The Secretary of State lies to the world.
The Attorney General launches a sham investigation.
The Defense Secretary is fired.
Top Pentagon officials are replaced with loyalists.
This is the making of a coup.https://t.co/qpr0o2k1wU
— Keith Boykin (@keithboykin) November 11, 2020
According to The Guardian, former defense officials and "military analysts argued that the post-election changes, while highly unusual, were not a reason to fear that the Pentagon would be weaponized in Trump's desperate efforts to hold on to power."
Regardless of whether or not a military coup is on the table, The Daily Poster's David Sirota argued on Tuesday night that Americans ought to be equally concerned by Trump's attempts to stage a judicial coup, which he said has not received sufficient attention from the Democratic Party.
According to Sirota, the president's strategy is to create enough "public perception of fraud" that Republican-dominated legislatures in key states can "try to invoke their constitutional power to ignore their states' popular votes, reject certified election results, and appoint slates of Trump electors."
"Even if the GOP fails to pull this off in 2020, the shit they're pulling right now is a test run of a plan they will use in the future to try to steal a presidential election and end whatever's left of American democracy," Sirota tweeted on Wednesday morning.
"And the next time," he added, "it may work."