No, Trump’s Pentagon purge doesn’t mean he’s planning a military coup

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To everyone worried that the U.S. military is gearing up to launch a coup to keep President Donald Trump in power: Please take a Xanax. (If you are allergic to Xanax, I also recommend watching “The Joy of Painting” hosted by Zen master Bob Ross.)

It’s true that Trump has settled all family business at the Pentagon. Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper was abruptly “terminated” on Nov. 9 and the following day three other senior Pentagon leaders quit in a move that many are calling a “decapitation” of the Defense Department’s senior civilian leadership.

It’s also true that the Pentagon’s leadership is now dominated by Trump loyalists, including retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata, a Fox News contributor who once accused former President Barack Obama of being a terrorist leader. Tata, who reportedly left the Army in 2008 after an investigation found he had committed adultery with at least two women and fathered a child out of wedlock, has stepped into the No. 3 position at the Pentagon.

With Trump refusing to acknowledge that he lost the Nov. 3 election to President-elect Joe Biden, some of the president’s critics have voiced concerns that the Stalinist purges at the Pentagon are a prelude to a military plot to keep Trump in power. (In June, Esper broke with the president by saying he did not believe active-duty troops should be used in response to protests across the country.)

People who should know better have been carelessly bandying about the words “military coup” on that hellish site known as Twitter. One such novice civilian-military expert is Andrew Weissmann, who served as lead prosecutor in former FBI Director Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

“1. To have a successful coup, a leader must control the military,” Weissmann wrote in a Nov. 9 tweet. “2. Trump just fired DOD Secretary and installed a flunky. 3. This is serious. 4. Will Republicans speak up, or will they remain complicit?”

Please allow me to be the first to knife-hand this type of speculation. First of all: The Pentagon remains obsessed with China as if the communist nation were an ex-girlfriend that it relishes hearing bad news about. Should the United States slip into civil war, the Pentagon’s top three priorities would remain China, China, and China.

Secondly, there is no way the Pentagon could quietly prepare to launch a massive operation to subvert the Constitution and impose a dictatorship. If a military coup really were in the works, hundreds – nay, thousands – of soldiers would be making TikTok videos as we speak about how they are stocking up on Ocean Spray cranberry juice for the big parachute jump into Washington, D.C.

Still, retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, former head of U.S. Southern Command, said that the leadership changes at the Pentagon put the country at risk during an already unstable transition.

“It looks like the reactions of a third world strong man,” McCaffrey told Task & Purpose. “It’s also embarrassing to our global standing as a democracy.”

But McCaffrey also said he does not expect the new Pentagon leaders to “create much havoc” between now and inauguration day.

“Trump is consolidating power across the government while exploring options to defy the election,” McCaffrey said. “It won’t work. Biden will take office on 20 Jan.”

The Pentagon did not provide a comment for this story.

Kori Schake, a defense policy expert who co-wrote a book with retired Marine Gen. James Mattis on the civil-military divide, has suggested that it is folly to look for any strategy behind Trump’s firing of Esper and other changes in the Pentagon’s leadership.

Trump has shown that his overriding concern is to get revenge on anyone in government who is not an obsequious sycophant, Schake wrote in a recent commentary for The Atlantic.

“Rabid at losing the election, frothing at the mouth to settle scores against those he believes wronged him, he’s lashing out at all perceived enemies in the waning days of his administration,” wrote Schake, a defense policy expert with the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington, D.C. “Hanlon’s razor is a managerial maxim that warns against attributing to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. And although Trump-administration policies and personnel choices have certainly been harmful, they have seldom been purposeful.”

However, while the chances that the new Pentagon regime could order tanks to roll into the nation’s capital to unlawfully keep Trump in power are exactly diddly squat, it’s not out of the question that the new leadership at the Defense Department could accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

On Nov.11, retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor became senior adviser to the acting defense secretary. Macgregor told Fox News host Tucker Carlson in September 2019 that he would advise Trump to pull out of Afghanistan immediately because the Taliban would never honor the terms of any peace agreement.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has suggested that Macgregor’s appointment could hasten the Afghanistan withdrawal, which is currently scheduled to be completed by May 2021.

“I am very pleased @realDonaldTrump asked my friend Col. Doug Macgregor to help quickly end the war in Afghanistan,” Paul tweeted on Nov. 12. “This and other picks for Pentagon are about getting the right people who will finally help him stop our endless wars.”

At the moment, the Defense Department has not announced any changes to the schedule for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, but Trump tweeted in October that all U.S. service members “should” be out of the country by Christmas.

Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller ignored reporters’ questions about the Afghanistan withdrawal on Friday as Miller greeted his Lithuanian counterpart at the Pentagon, CNN reporter Barbara Starr tweeted.

If anyone believes that Trump plans to move the troops from Afghanistan to Washington, D.C., as part of the military coup to keep him in power, I’d suggest stop listening to the voices in your head. They will only get you in trouble.

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Jeff Schogol covers the Pentagon for Task & Purpose. He has covered the military for 15 years and embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Haiti. Prior to joining T&P, he covered the Marine Corps and Air Force at Military Times. Comments or thoughts to share? Send them to Jeff Schogol via email at schogol@taskandpurpose.com or direct message @JeffSchogol on Twitter.