Last August 11, two distinguished retired U.S. Army officers, John Nagl and Paul Yingling, published a piece in a major military periodical entitled "'All Enemies, Foreign and Domestic': An Open Letter to Gen. Milley." The piece argued that "we do not live in ordinary times"; that president Trump was following "a dictator's playbook" and "is actively subverting our electoral system, threatening to remain in office in defiance of our Constitution"; and that "in a few months' time, you may have to choose between defying a lawless president or betraying your Constitutional oath."
The words that followed created a storm of controversy: "If Donald Trump refuses to leave office at the expiration of his constitutional term, the United States military must remove him by force, and you must give that order." For it sounded like Nagl and Yingling were encouraging direct military intervention in civilian affairs to decide a contested election. But this was not their point. Writing in the wake of Trump's deployment of militarized Homeland Security forces to repress Black Lives Matter demonstrations, Nagl and Yingling were concerned that Trump might deploy a "private army," a "paramilitary force" mobilized "not to enforce the law but to intimidate the president's political opponents."
"There is, in short, a clear and present danger of armed, insurrectionary violence by right-wing groups aligned with Trump and his 'Stop the Steal' effort."
Their letter outlines a very specific scenario: "street protests will inevitably swell outside the White House, and the ranks of Trump's private army will grow inside its grounds. The speaker of the House will declare the Trump presidency at an end, and direct the Secret Service and Federal Marshals to remove Trump from the premises. These agents will realize that they are outmanned and outgunned by Trump's private army, and the moment of decision will arrive." In that event, Nagl and Yingling argued, the military would face a choice: either "the U.S. military remains inert while the Constitution dies" or "U.S. military forces escort the former president from the White House grounds." And for these retired officers, the choice was clear: uphold the Constitution.
Obviously, their fear centered on January 20, 2021—Inauguration Day. They did not anticipate the possibility that the Capitol would be stormed by a violent Trump-incited mob on January 6, and that this insurrection would be regarded by its protagonists as the opening salvo in further violent efforts leading up to January 20. But they very much feared that Trump, intent on holding onto power by any means necesary, would call upon a substantial armed force capable of overpowering those federal marshals, Secret Service agents, and police, who might be called upon to enforce the law.
They feared exactly what happened last week, and is continuing to unfold right now.
What Nagl and Yingling warned of back in August is what General Milley and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are clearly worrying about now. Their "Message from the Joint Chiefs on the U.S. Capitol Riot," publicly released late Tuesday afternoon, is both unprecedented and unequivocal:
The American people have trusted the Armed Forces of the United States to protect them and our Constitution for almost 250 years. As we have done throughout our history, the U.S. military will obey lawful orders from civilian leadership, support civil authorities to protect lives and property, ensure public safety in accordance with the law, and remain fully committed to protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
The violent riot in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021 was a direct assault on the U.S. Congress, the Capitol building, and our Constitutional process. We mourn the deaths of the two Capitol policemen and others connected to these unprecedented events.
We witnessed actions inside the Capitol building that were inconsistent with the rule of law. The rights of freedom of speech and assembly do not give anyone the right to resort to violence, sedition and insurrection.
As Service Members, we must embody the values and ideals of the Nation. We support and defend the Constitution. Any act to disrupt the Constitutional process is not only against our traditions, values, and oath; it is against the law.
On January 20, 2021, in accordance with the Constitution, confirmed by the states and the courts, and certified by Congress, President-elect Biden will be inaugurated and will become our 46th Commander in Chief.
To our men and women deployed and at home, safeguarding our country-stay ready, keep your eyes on the horizon, and remain focused on the mission. We honor your continued service in defense of every American.
Their point is unmistakable: the U.S. military is pledged to uphold the Constitution, and will not obey unlawful orders that undermine it; the law and the Constitution require the inauguration of Joe Biden on January 20; and insurrectionary efforts, like the "Capitol riot," that seek to attack and undermine the Constitution, are hostile to the professional mission of the military—to protect and defend the Constitution "against all enemies foreign and domestic."
The message, signed individually by all eight members of the Joint Chiefs and released by their Office, does exactly what Nagl and Yingling called for five months ago: make very clear that if necessary in the face of a real insurrection, the U.S. military will side with the Constitution and not with a rogue president intent on fomenting civil war in his final days in office. The message is both a rebuke and a warning to Trump and his insurrectionary supporters.
Why did the generals issue this message yesterday?
The answer seems clear: because recent reports—both classified and unclassified, private and public—have made very clear that the assault on the Capitol involved a substantial degree of organization and planning by paramilitary forces, and that the groups and individuals in question continue to threaten the lives of U.S. public officials and to threaten armed and potentially insurrectionary protests in Washington, D.C. and in every state capitol in the country in the days leading up to January 20—and possibly beyond.
"That the preservation of constitutional democracy in the U.S. has come to this should be deeply troubling to everyone who cares about democracy."
There is, in short, a clear and present danger of armed, insurrectionary violence by right-wing groups aligned with Trump and his "Stop the Steal" effort.
The danger is very real.
Wednesday's House impeachment of Trump a second time sends the right signal.
At the same time, as scary as it is to say, this move is insufficient to forestall the possibility of Trumpist-incited violence. The Senate clearly will not take up impeachment before January 19. And Pence clearly will not invoke the 25th Amendment. Trump, in other words, almost certainly will remain in office until January 20. And the risk that he might incite violence remains real.
And while we can only hope that civilian law enforcement agents, backed by the Secret Service and properly-deployed National Guard forces, are able to maintain the rule of law in the coming weeks, this week's message from General Milley and his colleagues represents the surest public sign that while we still face real danger, we can have confidence that the top leadership of the military is committed to defending the Constitution and the rule of law.
That the preservation of constitutional democracy in the U.S. has come to this should be deeply troubling to everyone who cares about democracy.
At the same time, it would appear that the preservation of constitutional democracy in the U.S. has come to this.
We live in dark times.