The president of the United States considered using the military to overturn an election, according to press reports. Clearly, any president—any person—who would suggest such a thing doesn’t understand the whole point of American democratic politics. But more than that, the president clearly doesn’t understand the American military.
In the months before the election, there were concerns that Donald Trump might refuse to leave office. Some observers suggested that he might use his powers as the commander in chief to retain power. Others, including retired officers, pleaded with the military to enforce the will of the voters and remove him. Joe Biden said back in June that he was “absolutely convinced” that the military would do so. Former Vice President Al Gore echoed him, as did some congressional candidates.
Since the election, Michael Flynn—retired Army general, Trump’s first national security advisor, a former lobbyist for the government of Turkey, recipient of a recent Trump pardon, and now a crackpot conspiracy theorist—has suggested that the president should invoke martial law (not “marshall law,” Senator Rubio, sheesh). How, in Flynn’s mind, martial law would prevent Biden from taking the oath of office or extend Trump’s term past its constitutionally mandated date of expiry is unclear.
First things first. Senior Defense Department leaders have already expressed that there is no role for the military in domestic political disputes. Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said as much in October—and repeated the point last week: “We do not take an oath to a king or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual. No, we do not take an oath to a country, a tribe or a religion. We take an oath to the Constitution.”
Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville also issued a joint statement on Friday that “there is no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of an American election.”
Granted, none of these three men is in the chain of command between the president and combat troops, but they all represent the view of the military, including the combatant commanders who are in the chain of command.
In the unlikely scenario that Trump were to issue an order to use the military to prevent the transfer of power, the order would go to the secretary of defense. In the unlikely scenario that the secretary were to decide to enforce the order (which, it should go without saying, would be illegal), he would relay the order to commander of the Northern Command, Gen. Glen VanHerck. There, VanHerck would consult with his team of legal advisers, who would inform him that the order was a grotesque violation of the Constitution, and VenHerck would refuse the order and send it back to the secretary of defense. Because, as Gen. Milley said, VenHeck’s loyalty lies with the Constitution, not a king or queen, and certainly not Donald Trump.
At noon on January 20, Biden will be sworn in as president, and the military will immediately recognize him as the commander in chief, even if Trump refuses to concede. Concession is not a constitutional requirement but a ceremonial act, and the transfer of power does not require it.
Americans need not worry about a military coup, and they certainly should stop asking for military intervention either to keep Trump in power or to remove him from office. If he refuses to leave the White House after Biden is inaugurated, he will simply be a trespasser and will be removed by the Secret Service (part of the Department of Homeland Security)—not the military.