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U.S. military leaders worried Trump might attempt a coup to stay in power, new book claims

Today the Washington Post published excerpts from a new book by reporters Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker describing how U.S. military leaders, including Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley, worried President Trump might call on the armed forces to decide the outcome of the 2020 election. Judy Woodruff discusses the latest revelations with Nick Schiffrin and Yamiche Alcindor.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, The Washington Post published excerpts of a new book by reporters Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker that contains astonishing details of how concerned the military and specifically Joint Chiefs Chair Mark Milley were about former President Trump's actions in the final days of his administration.

    To talk about that, I'm joined by Yamiche Alcindor and Nick Schifrin.

    Hello to both of you.

    Some blockbuster material in this book.

    But, Nick, let's start with what we were just discussing. And a lot of it has to do with the fears on the part of the Joint Chiefs Chair Mark Milley. What were they?

  • Nick Schifrin:


    So, Milley and other military's fears about what President Trump was capable of, about the lack of confidence in his decision-making really accelerated when Trump fired Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. That was in early November, when Trump was threatening to fire other senior officials, including CIA Director Gina Haspel, and when he installed loyalists to run the Pentagon.

    Current and former officials I talk to say those loyalists pursued policy changes, traveled the world without any deliberation with other U.S. officials, without sharing details of their conversations.

    And so Milley, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others, really tried to hold the line on policy. They froze out Trump loyalists. They were feared — they feared that those policies would be made on the back of envelopes. They feared that some of those loyalists might start a war even.

    And they feared that Trump could do anything to stay in power, including perhaps creating a crisis in the U.S. that would require the deployment of the U.S. military in the U.S.

    And so, as first reported by Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker, Milley compared these days to 1933, when Hitler uses an attack on the German Parliament to establish a Nazi dictatorship. Milley said: "This is a Reichstag moment."

    His fear was existential. He thought they were capable of a coup. He said: "They're not going to F'ing succeed. You can't do this without the military. You can't do this without the CIA and the FBI. We're the guys with the guns."

    Perhaps it goes without saying, but the thought of the president's chief military adviser thinking that the president was capable of creating a coup is remarkable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It leaves you — it leaves one speechless.

    But, Yamiche, you, of course, were covering the White House then. What is your reporting about what was going on at that time, about what President Trump was doing? And what is he saying about all this right now?

  •  Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, this reporting and these statements by General Mark Milley, they really underscore what we knew at the time about the Trump presidency late in its tenure, this real critical period between November 2020 and January 2021.

    And, really, what it shows — what my reporting shows is that White House aides, as well as military officials and those closest to President Trump, those who were working for him in his administration, they were increasingly seeing former President Trump as unhinged, as wanting to hold onto power at all costs, and as someone who was scaring them.

    And what you see here are military officials making this backup plan. Now, at the time, there were loyalists of President Trump who were pushing back on the reporting, saying, no, President Trump was just wanting to have a free and fair election and that he would eventually concede, of course, something that he has not done even to this day.

    But what we see here in this reporting is really what we saw in 2020 into 2021. And it was a president who was telling people that he had not won the election — that he had won the election, rather, telling people that he needed to stay in power, that he was not going to give up.

    That said, today, the president did put out a statement — the former president, I should say, put out a statement today. I want to read part of what he said. It's a sort of remarkable statement. I was about 400 words.

    It said in part: "I never threatened or spoke about to anyone a coup of our government. So ridiculous. Sorry to inform you, but an election is my form of a coup. And if I was going to do a coup" — wait for it, Judy — "one of the last people I would do it with is General Mark Milley."

    And I said "wait for it" because that last part is really remarkable. He's saying, if I did have want to have a coup d'etat, if I did want to take over the government unfairly and illegally, then Mark Milley wouldn't be who I would want to do it with.

    We have never in American history, of course, seen a president talking about a coup d'etat. So, today really is also underscoring that President Trump has not changed his position, and continues to really be someone that makes a lot of people around him very nervous.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Never, never heard of president hypothesizing about it.

    So, Nick, after January the 6th, what did the national security apparatus in this country do?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, the former, current — former and current senior officials that I have been talking to say that those fears that they had before January the 6th about what Trump was capable of, about his decision-making only accelerated.

    And so they reiterated with each other that they wouldn't resign. They worked to avoid any crisis that would require the president to respond. And so they tried to not provoke around the world. They also tried to send a couple of extra messages of deterrence to adversaries, including Iran.

    And then the military deployed unprecedented numbers of service members to protect inauguration in Washington, D.C. And Milley and others breathe a sigh of relief on January 20 that it went off peacefully.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as you are reporting and as Yamiche has reported, the president continues to make these claims that he won the election.

    Yamiche Alcindor at the White House, Nick Schifrin, thank you very much.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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