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Will the military disobey Trump? Under Nixon, the Defense Department ignored and subverted direct orders from the President

General Mark Milley stands with Mike Pence, Trump, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and General Joseph F. Dunford. Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

General Mark Milley stands with Mike Pence, Trump, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and General Joseph F. Dunford. Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images



Three Ways to Get Rid of President Trump Before 2020 was the headline of a piece published 10 days after Trump’s inauguration in 2017. What would happen, Rosa Brooks wondered in the article, if the President issued an order that was dangerously unhinged? So: “Prepare to invade Mexico tomorrow!”, or: “I’m going to teach China a lesson with nukes!”. There could, she wrote, be a possibility of a “military coup, or at least a refusal by military leaders to obey certain orders”.

In a follow-up piece, And Then the Breitbart Lynch Mob Came for Me, Brooks detailed the torrent of abuse that came her way after the piece was published. The alt-right had responded to her suggestions with howls of indignation, culminating in a death threat: ‘I AM GOING TO CUT YOUR HEAD OFF 
 BITCH!’

Four years later, and President Trump is refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, is referring to mail-in ballots as a “big scam”, and declaring he wasn’t sure that the election could be “honest”. Shortly after his release from the Walter Reed Medical Center, Trump shows no signs of softening. He reiterated his contempt for the American electoral system in a frenzied tweet-storm:

Along with his recently expressed desire to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act to send troops onto American streets during the protests which followed the killing of George Floyd, the President has spurred speculation that he might seek to use the US military to prolong his time in office. New York Times Columnist, Thomas Friedman, described Trump’s statements as “a six-alarm fire”, saying “I think it’s DEFCON 5;” and Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny, warned that Trump, protected from ongoing criminal investigations only so long as he is in power, is unashamedly putting the nation on notice that he is planning a coup d’état.

Leading Republicans have promised an “orderly transition” which has reportedly been insufficient to relieve deep anxieties shared by senior military and Defense Department officials that they may be given unlawful orders if deployed during protests after the vote. In public, officials have insisted that the US military will not play a role settling election disputes — but debate is said to be intensifying in private about its role should there be civil unrest.

And now, a group of lawyers is officially offering advice to worried military and National Guard members. In the US, the law requires service members not to obey “flagrantly unlawful” orders but those who refuse to obey orders take considerable risks as, under military law, disobeying an order is itself a criminal offence. The Orders Project, founded in response to the militarised use of force against protestors this summer, has compiled a legal sourcebook for military personnel as a guide to what a soldier’s legal position might be in situations where loyalties conflict.

So, it turns out that Brooks anticipating that the military might refuse “to obey certain orders” wasn’t such an incendiary fantasy after all.

In fact, exactly this scenario — in which a president’s closest aides and military chiefs deliberately ignore or subvert orders from their Commander in Chief — has already played out in American history, under Richard Nixon. Such were his aggressive and impulsive outbursts that military and defence officials feared he might upset the fragile geopolitical order of the late 1960s/early 1970s. “If the President had his way,” Nixon’s National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, quipped on several occasions, “there would be a nuclear war each week.”

According to several members of Nixon’s inner circle, many of whom I met during the making of the documentary, The Secret World of Richard Nixon, there were a number of episodes in which the President’s staff thought it better to ignore his orders or to come up with explanations of why they couldn’t be carried out.

On 29 August 1969, for instance, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hijacked a US passenger plane en route from Rome to Tel Aviv and forced it to land at Damascus International Airport. Nixon spent that evening with his friend Charles ‘Bebe’ Rebozo, a Florida businessman who also served as his personal financial adviser. At 3am, according to Leonard Garment, Nixon’s Special Assistant from 1969 to 1973, the President called Kissinger, and said: “Henry, I want you to set in motion plans for the bombing of Damascus. This is an order. This is not something for discussion.”

Kissinger told the President that he would do as he asked, but in fact did nothing. Syria, then as now, was a Russian ally, and such a move would have been highly confrontational, potentially sparking a larger conflict between the superpowers. Kissinger interpreted Nixon’s order as, in his words, “posturing for the people he was with that evening” and decided to take the matter into his own hands. No bombs were dropped on Damascus.

If the President had his way, said Henry Kissinger of Richard Nixon, there would be a nuclear war each week. Credit: Getty Images

A year later, in the middle of September 1970, terrorists from the same organisation hijacked several aeroplanes and forced them to land in the Jordanian desert. Nixon again responded by ordering bombing raids on PFLP positions in Jordan, which this time would have provoked both Syria and Iraq, the PFLP’s Russian-backed sponsors, and complicated Jordan’s position as a US ally.

After consultation with Kissinger, Nixon’s then Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird, told the President that cloud cover made such a raid impossible. ‘Conveniently,’ Laird said later, ‘there was bad weather.’ (Jordan’s deserts in summer aren’t known for their heavy rainfall.) ‘I’ve always tried to carry out the orders of the Commander in Chief’ said Laird, ‘but on some occasions it was better to protect him.’

Towards the end of Nixon’s presidency, as Watergate took its toll on his mental equilibrium, some of his staff went further.

In the spring of 1974, Joseph Laitin, a public affairs officer at the Bureau of the Budget, was walking up a stairway in the West Wing of the White House when someone ran down the other way, bowled into him, and took off with a number of other men in pursuit. ‘My God,’ Laitin thought. ‘That was the President of the United States running away from six Secret Service agents.’ The look in Nixon’s eye, he said later, ‘was one of desperation. And that bothered me.’

James Schlesinger, then Secretary of Defense, felt similarly. He was concerned about Nixon’s access to the nuclear codes. At a meeting of the Joint Chiefs attended by Laitin, the chairman General George S. Brown the told the gathered company that Defense Secretary Schlesinger ‘wanted an agreement from the Joint Chiefs that nobody would take any action, or execute orders on the use of nuclear weapons, without all of them agreeing to it.’ According to Laitin, ‘they were shocked, but they all agreed.’

Schlesinger was also concerned about the possibility of the President trying to sidestep impeachment by surrounding the White House with troops loyal to the presidency – in the same way that Pentagon officials are now worried about Trump potentially refusing to leave the White House and ordering troops onto the streets to quell any civil unrest should he contest the election result.

Fearing the ‘bloody mess’ that might ensue if two sets of US troops found themselves facing each other outside the White House, Schlesinger issued another unorthodox order. “I told the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” he disclosed in an interview 26 years after the event, “that every order that would come from the White House had to come to me, directly, immediately upon receipt. There were not to be any extraordinary military measures that would be taken at anyone’s behest.”

A former head of the CIA, Schlesinger was not a liberal by any definition. Reportedly, his first words on taking office there were: “I’m here to make sure you don’t screw Richard Nixon.” By the spring of 1974, however, he believed that the President was no longer capable of controlling his emotions. Some – such as Nixon’s press secretary, Ronald Ziegler – maintained that it was inappropriate for Schlesinger to issue such orders. But Schlesinger, who died in 2014, remained adamant that he had done the right thing. “The President was the duly elected man in office,” he explained, “and it is not the responsibility of his cabinet officers to question whether or not he is balanced – save when there is clear evidence that he is no longer capable of the job.”

Interviewing members of the Nixon Administration about this period, a picture emerged of individuals constantly improvising in the untidy grey area of conflicting loyalties to the Constitution and Commander-in-Chief. Their responses altered from day to day with Nixon’s changing mental condition as well as rapidly evolving political events.

In the end, facing the near-certainty of impeachment, Nixon resigned peacefully on the 8th of August 1974. No ‘extraordinary military measures’ were taken. Ultimately politics and personality decided the day. Evidence of Nixon’s complicity in the cover up surrounding the Watergate burglary had eroded his remaining political support and, in the face of overwhelming opposition, his rage and paranoia gave way to defeat. These factors and the presence of certain key individuals around him ensured that the system was respected.

Of course Trump is not Nixon. And, although Trump’s political support may wane should he lose the election, his grandiose narcissism may elicit a different response, as might the guidance of those around him. In an interview last month, former political consultant to the Trump campaign and convicted felon, Roger Stone, told InfoWars’s Alex Jones that Trump should impose ‘martial law’ in the event of ‘election fraud’. And in June, when Trump decided to put on a show of strength and give a speech outside a church that had been damaged during protests close to the White House in D.C.’s Lafayette Square, the military provided assistance – armed members of the National Guard were present while military helicopters circled above. And, as he walked across the square, the president was flanked by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Milley, wearing military fatigues, and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper.

Both Milley and Esper faced a barrage of criticism for taking part in the event. Milley publicly apologised. “I should not have been there,” he said in a video address soon afterwards. Esper also broke with the president, saying that active duty troops should not be sent to control protests. “I don’t support invoking the Insurrection Act” he told reporters gathered at the Pentagon.

If Trump fails to agree to a peaceful transfer or questions the election result, it will be another ‘stress-test’ for a political system, which has already been pushed to new extremes under this presidency. For now, at least, the military has made its position clear, stating that it will play no role in the transition of power after the election. In his closing remarks during a virtual town hall at the end of September, General Milley encouraged US troops to remain neutral: “Stay apolitical,” he said “and keep the Constitution close to your heart.”

Milley’s words contained an echo of President Gerald Ford’s speech given at his swearing-in ceremony after Nixon’s resignation. “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over,” said Ford. “Our Constitution works. Our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.”

Let’s hope that, whatever the result, the same is true after November.


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Pat Davers
Pat Davers
3 years ago

So: “Prepare to invade Mexico tomorrow!”, or: “I’m going to teach China a lesson with nukes!”.

Yes, one of the main scaremongering tactics of Trump’s opponents before the last election was to claim that Trump would recklessly lead the US into war. As it turns out, he is the only US president this century NOT to have committed U.S. troops to disastrous military adventures.

Also, this article totally fails to mention what the Democrats are threatening to do, should they fail to win. Hilary Clinton is on record saying that “Biden should not concede the 2020 election under any circumstances”. What should the military do then?

I could go on.

Perhaps the historical part of this essay dealing with Nixon is correct, I don’t know, but given that the who tone of the article is showing all the symptoms of late-stage TDS, I would even cast that into doubt.

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
3 years ago
Reply to  Pat Davers

Indeed. As soon as ‘sane, rational, educated’ liberals don’t get their way (Brexit, Trump) it is all toys out of the pram time.

Tom Griffiths
Tom Griffiths
3 years ago
Reply to  Pat Davers

He hasn’t committed troops to disastrous adventures, but then neither did Carter.
His withdrawals and posturing with international treaties however have already been very destructive, and will potentially unravel Middle East stability even further. Many thousands of Kurds have already paid the ultimate price for his gesturing.
I was initially hopeful that his isolationism would protect the rest of the world from US interventions, but I’m disappointed that for example nuclear non-proliferation treaties are being abandoned.

Troy MacKenzie
Troy MacKenzie
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Griffiths

Those non-proliferation treaties were already abandoned by Russia. What’s the point in a treaty that only one side abides?

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Troy MacKenzie

It makes some people feel superior.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Griffiths

Kurds are always at risk, mostly from Turkey. The US tries to keep Turkey in the alliance (maybe impossible). Only a re-partition to create a Kurd state resolves their issue and that went so well for Israel.
The nuclear issues now involve China who doesn’t want to play. The US/Russia parity has been maintained except for abandoning the shorter range threats.

J StJohn
J StJohn
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Griffiths

It’d take the kind of genius Trump doesn’t possess to make things any worse than the leaders in the Middle East have already made things. Tony Blair’s accomplishments as a ‘Peace Envoy’ spring to mind. Before we knew it the progenitor of an ‘illegal’ war in Iraq gave us ‘Arab Spring’.Ta dah!

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Griffiths

“He hasn’t committed troops to disastrous adventures, but then neither did Carter.”

Does the Iranian hostage crisis ring any bells? A stark military failure that likely cost Carter the election.

“His withdrawals and posturing with international treaties however have already been very destructive, and will potentially unravel Middle East stability even further. “

Ever heard of the Abraham Accords? What Trump actually accomplished has put the ME on a more stable footing. He effectively proved that the lack of resolution to the Israeli/ Palestinian issue will not stop ME progress as we have been told for decades that it would. Iran is now the issue.

“I was initially hopeful that his isolationism would protect the rest of the world from US interventions, but I’m disappointed that for example nuclear non-proliferation treaties are being abandoned.”

You may engage in any nuclear non-proliferation treaty you want, with any other country, regardless of what the US does. If a treaty is all you want, that should not be tough to do.

Lickya Lips
Lickya Lips
3 years ago
Reply to  Pat Davers

‘What if’ is a strawman argument.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

Four years later, and President Trump is refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power,
Given how Dems have conducted themselves since his election, I can’t tell if this comment is driven by ignorance or just a lack of self-awareness. And that’s not to discount the possibility of both. The entire Dem apparatus steadfastly refused to accept the 2016 outcome, inventing one reason after another to paint a duly elected president as illegitimate. At long last, John Brennan’s own handwritten notes show that the big Russia story was the exact opposite of what the left treated it as being.

Dan Martin
Dan Martin
3 years ago

I wish the left would wait until Trump actually does something before condemning him for it.

steve eaton
steve eaton
3 years ago

Let’s see if I am getting this.
The left is worried that Trump, the constitutionally elected resident MIGHT order the military to do something unconstitutional, so the plan made public calls for the un-elected officials to preempt that by devising ways they will violate the Constitution…

So which side is it that is planning a coup again?

This article is purely a hit piece. What is up with UNHERD lately, did it get bought by the NYT or the Guardian recently?

When I visit UNHERD I expect reasoned arguments not just the same old lame-assed propaganda that I can get anywhere without even trying.

Mark James
Mark James
3 years ago
Reply to  steve eaton

Calm down dear it’s only an article. Pop back into your little echo chamber for a while, watch some Fox news or read the Daily Mail and when you’re calm and ready to read a point of view you might not necessary agree with you know where to find us.

steve eaton
steve eaton
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark James

Typical for those of your persuasion, a reply that avoids the issue raised while still managing to transmit all the hatred, bile, and condescension that is implicit in your worldview…you’re trolling the wrong guy my “friend”. You’ll get no rise from me because I consider such criticism from the left as complimentary.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark James

This is probably more appropriate for the Guardian than here.

polidoris ghost
polidoris ghost
3 years ago

The military are more likely to obey The President than not. He is The Commander-in-Chief and his opponents are not.
Perhaps the US military should swear allegiance to The Queen.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Right now they are disobeying his plans to withdraw thousands of troops from Afghanistan.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
3 years ago

Someone from the world of cinema in the Nixon era quoting New York Times sources and refers to conservatives as alt-right is not someone I take seriously, nor should anyone else. Knowing they face defeat in three weeks, the Democrat Party is furiously fanning the fantasy fires it has created. You can tell from the desperation in their eyes.

June Skelton
June Skelton
3 years ago

I’m confused. I remember warmonger Richard Nixon, but is the writer alluding to the same Donald Trump who’s just been nominated for the FOURTH time for a Nobel Peace Prize, this time by Finnish MEP, Laura Huhtasaari?

“President Trump has served almost a complete presidential term without starting a new war,” Huhtasaari said. “This would be the first time in almost four decades when the President of the United States of America has served a term without engaging his country to new conflict.”

J StJohn
J StJohn
3 years ago
Reply to  June Skelton

If only he were black he could’ve got one merely for being elected; like Obama.
To Obama’s credit, he had the decency to look as baffled as the rest of us on acceptance!

mike otter
mike otter
3 years ago

By stating they refuse to accept a defeat at the polls the Dems are setting the scene for chaos not even the military can control. Were Trump to do the same his chances of keeping power are higher than the Dems. They have made their hatred and fear of the 62m Trump voters clear. That’s a lot of people to take on in a country awash with anti-personnel firearms ( as opposed to game hunting ones). The only natural Dem supporters who are well-armed are the drug gangs, and their support is conditional on promised softer sentencing for their foot soldiers. Their leaders and managers are naturally at the de-regulated end of capitalism, and their ranks do what they’re told or else. I hope it doesn’t come to this but as i have said many times far left politics is not electable in the richest 3rd of the world. They only have one option if they want power and it remains to be seen if they are capable of using it.

steve eaton
steve eaton
3 years ago
Reply to  mike otter

Like I’ve pointed out before. Our founders made a point of ensuring that we American citizens have access to military arms in part to be prepared for times such as these.

The left make it out like it is about hunting. It is not. The constitution states that the purpose of the 2nd amendment forbidding the Government from disarming the people is to ensure a “well regulated militia” the definition of which is a well provisioned military force consisting of all citizens.

mike otter
mike otter
3 years ago
Reply to  steve eaton

Lets hope that thin but very strong line is maintained. As far as i know the USA remains the only country where the Government is in place on the suffeance of its citizens, rather than inspite of them. British passport holders, for example, are “subjects” with no bill of rights for protecting their freedoms and no more constitutional rights than the subjects of Putin or the King of Saudi Arabia.

bob thrasher
bob thrasher
3 years ago

…and yet this President has negotiated the first Middle East peace treaties in 25 years.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  bob thrasher

Well that is why the military doesn’t like him. Peace is the last thing they want. I have just watched a Jimmy Dore podcast telling us that a leading military figure called Milly is openly opposing Trump’s plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. They are already disobeying him.

THOMAS JANSSON
THOMAS JANSSON
3 years ago
Reply to  bob thrasher

They are not peace treaties but in Trumps fantasy. Those parties have not been in war with each other.

J StJohn
J StJohn
3 years ago
Reply to  THOMAS JANSSON

So it worked!!

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  THOMAS JANSSON

Well, that’s not really accurate is it? The countries that made peace with Israel through the Abraham accords have never before recognized Israel’s right to exist, much less agreed to trade with it. I understand that the conventional wisdom in DC for many years had been that there could be no such recognition prior to the resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict but the accords have made clear that is not the case.

anarcissie
anarcissie
3 years ago

In order to carry out a successful coup, Trump would have to have the strong backing of the US military, or a private army, as Hitler did. Trump has neither. Therefore, there will be no coup. However, it’s so exciting to talk about one and get all lathered up!

Eileen Natuzzi
Eileen Natuzzi
3 years ago

Wow, these comments are so disappointing. I am new to Unherd and came here tired of partisan bickering and nasty comments to articles. Lighten up, it was a nice historic piece that gave this reader some insight into Nixon and how we might handle a president off the deep end, Republican or Democrat.

Daniel Björkman
Daniel Björkman
3 years ago
Reply to  Eileen Natuzzi

I hear you. Unherd articles tend to be sober and thought-worthy. The comment section, on the other hand…

Dominic Straiton
Dominic Straiton
3 years ago

Trump is the only President since Carter not to start a war, so hes probably not that popular in the Pentagon.

David Simpson
David Simpson
3 years ago

I have no confidence that the Dems are any less insane than the President. The immediate future looks very scary.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
3 years ago
Reply to  David Simpson

I was hoping The Simpsons would be heard from.

David Simpson
David Simpson
3 years ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

doh

Mike Hearn
Mike Hearn
3 years ago

Given these concerns, you’d think that addressing fears of electoral / postal fraud would rank pretty high up the todo list. In theory nobody is in favour of vote fraud, so it should be a bi-partisan issue. Voting booths are rather famously separated by big barriers, just like restaurant tables now (in some parts of the world at least) so COVID hardly seems like an excuse.

The general disdain the US Democrats have towards anything that might improve electoral integrity, or even just placate those who are worried about it, is rather shocking. They even hate basic things like checking ID papers, calling it racist. Contested elections and the breakdown of democracy are inevitable if people stop believing votes are correctly counted – they should have no higher priority than ensuring security of the ballot, yet they seem almost wilfully to insist on almost anything that would undermine it. Even saying that they won’t report how many votes were collected for days after the results! That’s mad.

Joe Blow
Joe Blow
3 years ago

I long for a return of the time of nuance… an ability to acknowledge the good and bad that Trump represents; the the good and bad that Biden represents…

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
3 years ago

Much utter nonsense consuming the press. On Jan 20 there will either be an elected President or an interim, the Speaker. That person will then be the only one with the authority to issue orders in the Executive. If Biden wins, he can decide what to do should Trump try to stay. He may wait him out of the WH by laying siege as employees there leave or he may order immediate eviction. Few think Trump would elect that confrontation. If the legal battles rage on with indecision on the date, the Speaker could do many things but the public ire will hamper any response. Even the gloating partisan press may learn public displeasure, perhaps at gunpoint. The military will slow-roll all involved awaiting stability ignoring anything short of external threat.

The instability being created by partisans and the press is quite risky in terms of external opportunists. An outraged public or even half the public may be difficult to control.

kecronin1
kecronin1
3 years ago

I found Trump to be repulsive and was perplexed how he was voted in. I do not believe he represented the best of us but I can’t deny the achievements. We didn’t march off to any new war. When he went too far, such as the environmental appointment, he changed course under pressure. Then a friend who is Uighur, and thus Muslim, told me that their plight was finally being addressed by the Trump administration. Middle East talks were mind blowing. An Israeli friend said the talks have been going on for some time. But as I told her, the ‘talks’ needed a president who was willing to accept the scorn to come and she agreed. Then came news that Taiwan, concerned about their sovereignty under a Biden victory, started buying military equipment under the radar. Watching what is happening in Hong Kong their concerns are justified. It became real that who is the US president may matter to the sovereignty of other nations. I am hoping a Biden’s presidency goes well. Not just for us in the US but for other nations as well.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  kecronin1

I felt the same way, I wasn’t excited about either Clinton or Trump but felt like with Trump we could avoid more wars and bring troops home. I also appreciated the economic benefits of the Trump presidency particularly for those low on the economic ladder. The Middle East progress was indeed amazing. I too hope every presidency goes well, including Biden’s.

aelf
aelf
3 years ago

Mattis was fired as Secretary of Defense for disobeying orders.