General Mark Milley stands with Mike Pence, Trump, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and General Joseph F. Dunford. Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Three Ways to Get Rid of President Trump Before 2020 was the headline of a piece published 10 days after Trump’s inauguration in 2017. What would happen, Rosa Brooks wondered in the article, if the President issued an order that was dangerously unhinged? So: “Prepare to invade Mexico tomorrow!”, or: “I’m going to teach China a lesson with nukes!”. There could, she wrote, be a possibility of a “military coup, or at least a refusal by military leaders to obey certain orders”.

In a follow-up piece, And Then the Breitbart Lynch Mob Came for Me, Brooks detailed the torrent of abuse that came her way after the piece was published. The alt-right had responded to her suggestions with howls of indignation, culminating in a death threat: ‘I AM GOING TO CUT YOUR HEAD OFF 

Four years later, and President Trump is refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, is referring to mail-in ballots as a “big scam”, and declaring he wasn’t sure that the election could be “honest”. Shortly after his release from the Walter Reed Medical Center, Trump shows no signs of softening. He reiterated his contempt for the American electoral system in a frenzied tweet-storm:

Along with his recently expressed desire to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act to send troops onto American streets during the protests which followed the killing of George Floyd, the President has spurred speculation that he might seek to use the US military to prolong his time in office. New York Times Columnist, Thomas Friedman, described Trump’s statements as “a six-alarm fire”, saying “I think it’s DEFCON 5;” and Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny, warned that Trump, protected from ongoing criminal investigations only so long as he is in power, is unashamedly putting the nation on notice that he is planning a coup d’état.

Leading Republicans have promised an “orderly transition” which has reportedly been insufficient to relieve deep anxieties shared by senior military and Defense Department officials that they may be given unlawful orders if deployed during protests after the vote. In public, officials have insisted that the US military will not play a role settling election disputes — but debate is said to be intensifying in private about its role should there be civil unrest.

And now, a group of lawyers is officially offering advice to worried military and National Guard members. In the US, the law requires service members not to obey “flagrantly unlawful” orders but those who refuse to obey orders take considerable risks as, under military law, disobeying an order is itself a criminal offence. The Orders Project, founded in response to the militarised use of force against protestors this summer, has compiled a legal sourcebook for military personnel as a guide to what a soldier’s legal position might be in situations where loyalties conflict.

So, it turns out that Brooks anticipating that the military might refuse “to obey certain orders” wasn’t such an incendiary fantasy after all.

In fact, exactly this scenario — in which a president’s closest aides and military chiefs deliberately ignore or subvert orders from their Commander in Chief — has already played out in American history, under Richard Nixon. Such were his aggressive and impulsive outbursts that military and defence officials feared he might upset the fragile geopolitical order of the late 1960s/early 1970s. “If the President had his way,” Nixon’s National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, quipped on several occasions, “there would be a nuclear war each week.”

According to several members of Nixon’s inner circle, many of whom I met during the making of the documentary, The Secret World of Richard Nixon, there were a number of episodes in which the President’s staff thought it better to ignore his orders or to come up with explanations of why they couldn’t be carried out.

On 29 August 1969, for instance, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hijacked a US passenger plane en route from Rome to Tel Aviv and forced it to land at Damascus International Airport. Nixon spent that evening with his friend Charles ‘Bebe’ Rebozo, a Florida businessman who also served as his personal financial adviser. At 3am, according to Leonard Garment, Nixon’s Special Assistant from 1969 to 1973, the President called Kissinger, and said: “Henry, I want you to set in motion plans for the bombing of Damascus. This is an order. This is not something for discussion.”

Kissinger told the President that he would do as he asked, but in fact did nothing. Syria, then as now, was a Russian ally, and such a move would have been highly confrontational, potentially sparking a larger conflict between the superpowers. Kissinger interpreted Nixon’s order as, in his words, “posturing for the people he was with that evening” and decided to take the matter into his own hands. No bombs were dropped on Damascus.

If the President had his way, said Henry Kissinger of Richard Nixon, there would be a nuclear war each week. Credit: Getty Images

A year later, in the middle of September 1970, terrorists from the same organisation hijacked several aeroplanes and forced them to land in the Jordanian desert. Nixon again responded by ordering bombing raids on PFLP positions in Jordan, which this time would have provoked both Syria and Iraq, the PFLP’s Russian-backed sponsors, and complicated Jordan’s position as a US ally.

After consultation with Kissinger, Nixon’s then Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird, told the President that cloud cover made such a raid impossible. ‘Conveniently,’ Laird said later, ‘there was bad weather.’ (Jordan’s deserts in summer aren’t known for their heavy rainfall.) ‘I’ve always tried to carry out the orders of the Commander in Chief’ said Laird, ‘but on some occasions it was better to protect him.’

Towards the end of Nixon’s presidency, as Watergate took its toll on his mental equilibrium, some of his staff went further.

In the spring of 1974, Joseph Laitin, a public affairs officer at the Bureau of the Budget, was walking up a stairway in the West Wing of the White House when someone ran down the other way, bowled into him, and took off with a number of other men in pursuit. ‘My God,’ Laitin thought. ‘That was the President of the United States running away from six Secret Service agents.’ The look in Nixon’s eye, he said later, ‘was one of desperation. And that bothered me.’

James Schlesinger, then Secretary of Defense, felt similarly. He was concerned about Nixon’s access to the nuclear codes. At a meeting of the Joint Chiefs attended by Laitin, the chairman General George S. Brown the told the gathered company that Defense Secretary Schlesinger ‘wanted an agreement from the Joint Chiefs that nobody would take any action, or execute orders on the use of nuclear weapons, without all of them agreeing to it.’ According to Laitin, ‘they were shocked, but they all agreed.’

Schlesinger was also concerned about the possibility of the President trying to sidestep impeachment by surrounding the White House with troops loyal to the presidency – in the same way that Pentagon officials are now worried about Trump potentially refusing to leave the White House and ordering troops onto the streets to quell any civil unrest should he contest the election result.

Fearing the ‘bloody mess’ that might ensue if two sets of US troops found themselves facing each other outside the White House, Schlesinger issued another unorthodox order. “I told the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” he disclosed in an interview 26 years after the event, “that every order that would come from the White House had to come to me, directly, immediately upon receipt. There were not to be any extraordinary military measures that would be taken at anyone’s behest.”

A former head of the CIA, Schlesinger was not a liberal by any definition. Reportedly, his first words on taking office there were: “I’m here to make sure you don’t screw Richard Nixon.” By the spring of 1974, however, he believed that the President was no longer capable of controlling his emotions. Some – such as Nixon’s press secretary, Ronald Ziegler – maintained that it was inappropriate for Schlesinger to issue such orders. But Schlesinger, who died in 2014, remained adamant that he had done the right thing. “The President was the duly elected man in office,” he explained, “and it is not the responsibility of his cabinet officers to question whether or not he is balanced – save when there is clear evidence that he is no longer capable of the job.”

Interviewing members of the Nixon Administration about this period, a picture emerged of individuals constantly improvising in the untidy grey area of conflicting loyalties to the Constitution and Commander-in-Chief. Their responses altered from day to day with Nixon’s changing mental condition as well as rapidly evolving political events.

In the end, facing the near-certainty of impeachment, Nixon resigned peacefully on the 8th of August 1974. No ‘extraordinary military measures’ were taken. Ultimately politics and personality decided the day. Evidence of Nixon’s complicity in the cover up surrounding the Watergate burglary had eroded his remaining political support and, in the face of overwhelming opposition, his rage and paranoia gave way to defeat. These factors and the presence of certain key individuals around him ensured that the system was respected.

Of course Trump is not Nixon. And, although Trump’s political support may wane should he lose the election, his grandiose narcissism may elicit a different response, as might the guidance of those around him. In an interview last month, former political consultant to the Trump campaign and convicted felon, Roger Stone, told InfoWars’s Alex Jones that Trump should impose ‘martial law’ in the event of ‘election fraud’. And in June, when Trump decided to put on a show of strength and give a speech outside a church that had been damaged during protests close to the White House in D.C.’s Lafayette Square, the military provided assistance – armed members of the National Guard were present while military helicopters circled above. And, as he walked across the square, the president was flanked by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Milley, wearing military fatigues, and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper.

Both Milley and Esper faced a barrage of criticism for taking part in the event. Milley publicly apologised. “I should not have been there,” he said in a video address soon afterwards. Esper also broke with the president, saying that active duty troops should not be sent to control protests. “I don’t support invoking the Insurrection Act” he told reporters gathered at the Pentagon.

If Trump fails to agree to a peaceful transfer or questions the election result, it will be another ‘stress-test’ for a political system, which has already been pushed to new extremes under this presidency. For now, at least, the military has made its position clear, stating that it will play no role in the transition of power after the election. In his closing remarks during a virtual town hall at the end of September, General Milley encouraged US troops to remain neutral: “Stay apolitical,” he said “and keep the Constitution close to your heart.”

Milley’s words contained an echo of President Gerald Ford’s speech given at his swearing-in ceremony after Nixon’s resignation. “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over,” said Ford. “Our Constitution works. Our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.”

Let’s hope that, whatever the result, the same is true after November.