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The sudden flood of books about the tumultuous last days of Donald Trump’s presidency have brought a renewed focus to the role of Gen. Mark Milley, then as now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Milley reportedly worried that Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results could be a “Reichstag moment,” and spent the months between the election and Inauguration Day working to ensure a successful transition of power. He warned Pentagon commanders to refuse any illegal order from Trump, and assured nervous Democratic lawmakers that the military wouldn’t be part of the outgoing president’s machinations.
“They may try, but they’re not going to f***ing succeed,” Milley reportedly said. “You can’t do this without the military. You can’t do this without the CIA and the FBI. We’re the guys with guns.”
Mostly, Milley’s story is about how the American constitutional system survived this time, thanks to a few people and institutions that held the line against a ferocious (if largely incompetent) assault. But it is also a story of slippage and decay. If the military is having to choose which side it will take during a transition of power — even if it’s just a choice about whether to follow the rule of law — we’re already a significant step removed from stable democracy.
Simply put, the armed forces aren’t supposed to be kingmakers. Milley and the Pentagon didn’t end up acting in that role after the 2020 elections, and there’s no evidence they wanted it, but — in confronting the question of how to act if Trump tried to retain power — they moved incrementally closer to taking on the responsibility. In our democracy, the military is supposed to be subordinate to elected civilian leadership. (The Founders were very concerned about the possibility of an armed, tyrannical government.) If the generals play a role in deciding who those leaders will be, that delicate-but-critical dynamic is upended.
All of this is not the Pentagon’s fault. Trump’s actions, and his party’s failure to check him, created the dilemma. Milley and his colleagues across the armed forces made the right decision in siding with the election results. That they felt the need to consider it at all means once-bright lines have already blurred.