Trump Takes Pinochet Route
The instances of cabinet officials being fired have become such a whimsical affair in the Donald Trump presidency that novelty has worn off. Yet, in the dismissal of defence secretary Mark Esper on Monday, Trump probably acted per a script.
Curiously, the firing of Esper coincided with a memo from the US Attorney-General William Barr authorising federal prosecutors to investigate “specific allegations” of voter fraud before the results of the Nov 3 presidential race are certified.
Barr, a sidekick of Trump, has made a big political move to enlist the Justice Department as accomplice to legitimise his boss’ campaign to debunk Joe Biden’s election victory.
In protest, Richard Pilger, the head of the branch of the Justice Department that prosecutes election crimes, promptly stepped down, saying in a circular mail to his colleagues, “Having familiarised myself with the new policy and its ramifications, and in accord with the best tradition of the John C. Keeney Award for Exceptional Integrity and Professionalism (my most cherished Departmental recognition), I must regretfully resign from my role as Director of the Election Crimes Branch.”
Trump is setting the stage for a historic political showdown to usurp power. If the federal prosecutors can be coaxed into coming up with “election crimes”, that would feed into Trump’s case against Biden in the Supreme Court (where 3 out of nine justices are his hand-picked nominees.) And if a court ruling ensues favouring Trump, a transfer of power to Biden meets with sudden death.
Biden’s supporters (a little more than one half of America) may revolt. But Trump owns the other half of America. He has already plans to call for mass public rallies. A grave law and order situation can arise, since Americans are heavily armed too. There could be a violent showdown.
Now, this is where a compliant Defence Secretary is useful and necessary. Esper was the boss of the Pentagon and had made it clear that he was dead against the military’s deployment to handle civil disturbances or involvement in the political arena.
Interestingly, at a press conference at the state department yesterday, state secretary Mike Pompeo also flagged announced it’s business as usual, announcing he’s “heading out again on Friday of this week, this time to France, to Turkey, to Georgia, Israel, Qatar, the UAE, and to Saudi Arabia.”
Pompeo gave a long-winded account of the great things that he is doing in the foreign policy area. After listening to his folksy tale, a plucky correspondent asked Pompeo: “Is the State Department currently preparing to engage with the Biden transition team? And if not, at what point does a delay hamper a smooth transition or pose a risk to national security?”
Whereupon, Pompeo replied: “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration. Right. We’re ready. The world is watching what’s taking place here. We’re going to count all the votes. When the process is complete, there’ll be electors selected. There’s a process. The Constitution lays it out pretty clearly. The world should have every confidence that the transition necessary to make sure that the State Department is functional today, successful today, and successful with the president who’s in office on January 20th, a minute after noon, will also be successful.”
In sum, “a second Trump administration” is getting ready for launch. Meanwhile, the world community is already dealing with Biden. The British PM Boris Johnson is planning to meet Biden. But Pompeo was nonchalant. He said:
“The world is watching what’s taking place here. We’re going to count all the votes. When the process is complete, there’ll be electors selected. There’s a process. The Constitution lays it out pretty clearly. The world should have every confidence that the transition necessary to make sure that the State Department is functional today, successful today, and successful with the president who’s in office on January 20th, a minute after noon, will also be successful…
“Rich, I’m the Secretary of State. I’m getting calls from all across the world. These people are watching our election. They understand that we have a legal process. They understand that this takes time. Right? It took us 37-plus days in an election back in 2000. We conducted a successful transition then. I’m very confident that we will count – and we must count – every legal vote. We must make sure that any vote that wasn’t lawful ought not be counted. That dilutes your vote if it’s done improperly. We got to get that right. And when we get it right, we’ll get it right. We’re in good shape.”
“This department cares deeply to make sure that elections around the world are safe and secure and free and fair, and my officers risk their lives to ensure that that happens. They work diligently on that. We often encounter situations where it’s not clear about a particular election. We work to uncover facts, we work to do discovery, to learn whether in fact the outcome – the decision that was made – reflected the will of the people. That’s our responsibility. It’s what we try to do along with partners all across the world, along with OSCE inspectors to make sure that those elections were free and fair… We want the law to be imposed in a way that reflects the reality of what took place, and that’s what I think we’re engaged in here in the United States and it’s what we work on every place all across the world.”
A Kafkaesque scenario? But Pompeo’s cockiness is worrisome. The oldest democracy on the planet is entering uncharted waters. With Esper out of the way, if push comes to shove, Trump is probably planning to order the US Army to clear his path for a second term. What if the armed forces refuse to obey their commander-in-chief?
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reacting was confronted with this highly sensitive question in August. The general reportedly told the Congress that the US armed forces will not be involved in the election process or resolving a possible disputed vote.
In written responses to questions from two Democratic members of the House Armed Services Committee, he reportedly stated, “I believe deeply in the principle of an apolitical U.S. military. In the event of a dispute over some aspect of the elections, by law U.S. courts and the U.S. Congress are required to resolve any disputes, not the U.S. military. I foresee no role for the U.S armed forces in this process.”
When asked specifically whether the armed forces would reject a presidential order to use military force for political gain, Gen. Milley said, “I will not follow an unlawful order.”
Again, earlier this month, Axios reported citing sources that Gen. Milley held an off-the-record video call with top generals and network anchors on October 31 to tamp down speculation about potential military involvement in the presidential election. He set up the highly unusual call to make clear that the military’s role is apolitical and to dispel any notion of a role for the military in adjudicating a disputed election or making any decision around removing a president from the White House.
According to the Axis report (which has not been denied so far), Milley told the anchors that the US military would have no role whatsoever in a peaceful transfer of power.
America has an all-volunteer army. The demography of the US armed forces is very sensitive, with something like two-thirds of active duty enlisted men comprising non-whites. The percentage of women is even higher — almost 50 percent of active-duty enlisted military personnel being non-whites.
Trump is tempted to take the route of Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet to save America from socialism. He probably estimates that the views about him too will get more nuanced eventually. After all, the history of American capitalism is not to be written by the pen of the left.
Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar is retired from the Indian Foreign Service.
Cover Photograph: A Renaissance like photograph with a hint of Caravaggio: General Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte surrounded by his military staff after the US-backed coup of 11th September 1973 , Santiago