IN THE NORMAL course of things, army chiefs in democracies are supposed to keep a low profile. General Mark Milley, chairman of America’s joint chiefs of staff—the country’s top military officer and adviser to the president—has had no such luck. On January 6th, as America’s Capitol was ransacked by supporters of President Donald Trump, General Milley received frantic text messages from at least one besieged lawmaker, pleading for help. On January 8th, with order restored in the Capitol, he received another unwelcome phone call, this time from Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the House of Representatives.
“I spoke to…Milley to discuss available precautions for preventing an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike,” she wrote. “The situation of this unhinged president could not be more dangerous.” In fact, there are few such precautions. According to Jon Wolfsthal of Global Zero, an advocacy group, and a former senior arms-control official, “the sad reality is that the US system is set up to ensure the president can order a nuclear strike whenever he sees fit. There are no existing legal ways to prevent him from doing that, short of removing him from office or relying on military officers below him to resist.”
Mr Trump is due to remain in office until the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden on January 20th. Impeachment proceedings, threatened by Democrats after his incitement of the attack on the Capitol, are unlikely to succeed. Nor are Mike Pence and a majority of his cabinet likely to use the 25th Amendment to remove him. Instead, government officials have begun pondering how to keep him from doing further damage to the Republic—no easy task in a system of government that vests presidents with immense power.
An example of that came on January 6th itself, when Christopher Miller, America’s acting secretary of defence, explained how he had come to the decision to deploy the national guard of Washington, DC to the Capitol. Mr Miller said that he, along with General Milley, had spoken to the leaders of both houses of Congress and Vice-President Mike Pence. Mr Pence is not in America’s formal chain of command. Mr Trump—the commander-in-chief—was not mentioned, though the Pentagon later said that the two men had spoken earlier in the week. Has the chain broken? “I have a hard time coming up with an equivalent historical example where the president has not been in the decision-making loop about something like this,” says Carrie Lee, a professor at the US Air War College, “save perhaps 9/11, when [George W.] Bush was on Air Force One and in limited contact.”
At first, the Department of Defence (DoD) was understandably keen to keep the National Guard—essentially, military reservists—away from the ruckus in the Capitol. Its deployment against anti-racism protests last summer, including a low helicopter pass over demonstrators, provoked outrage and an internal inquiry. But as the situation worsened on January 6th, the ill-prepared Capitol police asked for help from Washington’s local police force, which in turn requested assistance from guardsmen.
Because the District of Columbia is not a state, the deployment of its National Guard must be authorised by the federal government. The Pentagon was slow to respond. “There was some concern from the army of what it would look like to have armed military personnel on the grounds of the Capitol,” Muriel Bowser, Washington’s mayor, told the Washington Post. Mr Trump resisted the move, says a source familiar with events.
Eventually, Mr Miller, with political cover from the vice-president and lawmakers, appeared to bypass the president. Because authority over the National Guard is delegated from the president to the secretary of defence, this is thought to be legally sound. But, says Jim Golby of the University of Texas at Austin, “that the president wasn’t consulted at a moment of national crisis, and the vice-president was, suggests the commander-in-chief was missing in action and not in command.” Later that evening, after Mr Trump had praised the insurrectionists as “very special people”, Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, tweeted that Mr Pence was “a genuinely fine and decent man”, with the obvious insinuation that Mr Trump was not. The impression was that power was ebbing from the president and coalescing around his deputy at a crucial juncture for American democracy.
In August, the Transition Integrity Project, a series of election crisis scenario planning exercises conducted by a bipartisan group of over 100 current and former officials and experts, concluded that there was “genuine uncertainty related to whether Team Trump could convince the military to deploy active duty troops domestically” to intervene in domestic politics, such as by suspending the political process during or after an election. Happily, that scenario has looked increasingly far-fetched. In October General Milley, chastened by his own ill-advised role in quelling protests in June, emphasised that “there’s no role for the US military in determining the outcome of a US election”. The next month he gave a speech declaring that: “We are unique among militaries. We do not take an oath to a king, or queen, a tyrant, or a dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual…We take an oath to the Constitution.”
Despite General Milley’s declaration, on January 3rd all ten of America’s living former defence secretaries felt compelled to publish an open letter warning civilian and military officials against involvement in Mr Trump’s effort to overturn the election. Mr Miller’s recent public signals suggest that he—the Pentagon’s top civilian, whose job is to shield the uniformed armed forces from partisan political wrangling—would also resist any effort by Mr Trump to co-opt soldiers. His statement on January 6th said: “Our people are sworn to defend the constitution and our democratic form of government and they will act accordingly.” That is a welcome message. But it is not the end of the story.
Albeit in laggardly fashion, Mr Miller has shown himself willing to deploy National Guard units against a pro-Trump mob. (He authorised the deployment of thousands more fresh guardsmen to the capital on January 7th.) Yet, even if weakened, Mr Trump remains formally in charge. He could yet countermand such orders, now or during future unrest. That would force the secretary of defence into choosing between disobedience, resignation or the sack. The armed forces are discovering that neutrality is not the same as disentanglement.
“The fact is that if things get out of hand now or in the next couple of weeks, the military may become involved,” says Risa Brooks of Marquette University. “I am worried that military leaders may not have the political mindset to navigate their involvement in quelling mass political violence.” The contrast between the heavy-handed measures applied against left-wing protesters in the summer and the light touch afforded to the pro-Trump crowd this week “will also further politicise the military in the minds of some Americans,” notes Mr Golby.
At the same time, the ambiguity about where power lies might also bleed into the wider conduct of foreign policy. Tensions have been rising in the Persian Gulf, where Iran recently resumed enrichment of uranium to higher levels as an American aircraft-carrier was ordered to remain in the region. At home, several American government departments are still reeling from a big Russian cyber-intrusion into their computer networks, which may be continuing.
Meanwhile, America’s national-security leadership is in tumult. Matt Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, resigned on January 6th. At least five other officials in the national security council have followed, though congressional leaders are thought to have urged others to remain in order to keep adults in the room.
If Mr Trump were to issue orders that were obviously deranged—such as the attack on Iranian cultural sites that he threatened in January 2020—those could be batted away by Pentagon lawyers as incompatible with international law and the laws of war. But America’s armed forces are ultimately trained and organised to obey lawful commands, however distasteful they might seem. Nuclear authority rests entirely in the president’s hands; even the secretary of defence is not in the chain of command.
The tension between that culture of discipline on the one hand, and Mr Trump’s self-evidently waning political authority on the other, may throw up unprecedented dilemmas, as Ms Pelosi’s intervention suggests. “I’ve heard from a number of senior Trump administration officials this morning that he is increasingly unhinged”, wrote Elissa Slotkin, a Democratic congresswoman and former CIA analyst, on January 7th, “and they are concerned about the actions he could take in the next few weeks”.
The president’s fast-waning legitimacy, and the growing distrust of his motives, weigh on those who must implement his directives. His behaviour will “make it more likely that we’ll see slow-rolling of any potentially big foreign-policy moves,” says Lindsay Cohn, a professor at the US Naval War College. Will that be enough? The remaining national-security professionals in the Trump administration are counting down the days. The inauguration of a new president on January 20th cannot come soon enough.