The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Gen. Milley’s terror of a Trump ‘coup’ should prompt Democrats to act — now

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the White House on Sept. 11, 2020. (Al Drago for The Washington Post)

The news that the top U.S. military leader took extensive actions amid fears that Donald Trump would stage a coup to remain president is shocking and unsettling — but it also risks imparting exactly the wrong lesson.

The story suggests that when the peaceful transfer of power comes under severe strain, democratic stability can only depend on the individual virtue of key actors. That did happen here — Trump’s designs were in part thwarted by a few state-level Republicans — but we can’t allow this to be the moral of the story.

Instead, this should prompt much more resolve about undertaking reforms that could help prevent a future election from being stolen — structural reforms that are eminently achievable and that we can undertake if we summon the will.

Gen. Mark A. Milley’s “stomach-churning” fear that Trump represented a “Reichstag moment” is described in a new book by The Post’s Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker. It recounts that Milley was deeply alarmed by Trump’s recruitment of supporters to descend on the Capitol on Jan. 6, which culminated in the violent insurrection attempt.

“Milley told his staff that he believed Trump was stoking unrest, possibly in hopes of an excuse to invoke the Insurrection Act and call out the military,” the book reports, per CNN.

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Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, feared that Trump’s firing of his defense secretary portended the worst. He equated the movement to overturn the election incited by Trump with “brownshirts in the streets” and the “Nazis” that we “fought in World War II.”

Milley kept in close touch with top Trump officials to monitor any coup-like plotting. And he informally discussed with other military leaders how they might respond if Trump issued a nefarious or illegal order.

The real moral of this story

Surely pundits who mocked the idea that Trump might go to extreme lengths to remain in power will convert this into proof they were right all along. After all, Trump didn’t actually attempt a military coup, did he?

But this misses the larger point of the story. Milley’s general overarching fear was absolutely correct: Trump and key strains of the movement behind him were unquestionably willing to resort to potentially illegal and violent means to thwart the transfer of power from Trump to the legitimately elected new government. They actually did attempt this.

And now? We’re seeing ongoing sham audits raising fake doubts about the 2020 outcome, brutal punishment meted out to Republicans who defend the integrity of Trump’s loss, and efforts to replace elections officials who refused to overturn results with ones who will. Trump and the non-trivial movement behind him are gearing up to attempt it again.

That’s why structural reforms aimed toward making this harder are sorely needed. We can learn from Trump’s failure by looking at what he attempted.

Trump loyalists pressured local officials not to certify results. They tried to get GOP legislatures to send rogue presidential electors to Congress in defiance of their state’s certified outcomes. And Trump tried to pressure Vice President Mike Pence into subverting the count of electors in Congress and got a lot of GOP lawmakers to object to the rightful ones.

All that failed. But instead of counting on the virtue of individual actors, we can reform these processes to make such future attempts harder to pull off.

We need structural reforms

On certification of federal elections, Congress could set standards for states that streamline the certification process to take pressure off low-level election boards, and place ultimate control of certification in the hands of state judicial actors who are ostensibly nonpartisan. That would make it harder to corrupt certification.

On state legislatures sending rogue electors, Congress could revise the Electoral Count Act. Ideas include setting higher evidentiary standards for objections to electors, making the threshold for objecting higher than one senator and representative, and requiring two-thirds of Congress to sustain an objection.

This could avert a 2024 scenario in which a GOP legislature in one deciding state buckles this time under pressure to send rogue electors, and a GOP-controlled chamber in Congress counts them, creating a severe crisis at best and a stolen election at worst.

Whatever reforms we choose, the basic guiding idea here should be this. We don’t just want to make it harder to corrupt these processes, but also to reduce the incentive to pressure officials at all these levels to do so, since it would be less likely to succeed.

This is something well-meaning Republicans should want. Wouldn’t it be desirable to avoid replicating the extraordinary pressure we saw on GOP elections officials to help steal the election and, more recently, to corrupt recounts and audits demanded by Trump partisans?

It all comes down to the filibuster

The important thing about President Biden’s big democracy speech is that he flatly described the future threat in exactly these terms: Unless we act, it’s highly likely we’ll see a future attempt to subvert an election based on manufactured pretexts, and it might succeed.

If this is so, then how do we not build safeguards against this into democracy-reform legislation, and how do we not reform or suspend the filibuster to pass them?

Milley’s fear of a Trump military coup was not borne out. But this shouldn’t lead us to congratulate ourselves over Trump’s incompetence or the virtues of individual players. It should add to our urgency to act.