More on the way

The military top brass were actively blocking presidential orders. Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer were cowering from the neo-fascist mob unleashed by the president. Daniel Lazare sees a constitutional order in an advanced state of decay

Was the insurrection on Capitol Hill an attempted coup d’état, or merely a case of America’s ancient constitutional machinery grinding to a halt in the face of mounting political pressure?

The answer is: both. The latest evidence comes courtesy of a special congressional committee charged with investigating the January 6 2021 uprising, which held its final televised session last week. The hearings, since they began in June, have been generally limp affairs, with lots of third-hand gossip about Donald Trump trying to wrestle away the steering wheel of the presidential vehicle, and the like - gossip that was swiftly and effectively rebutted by the personnel who were actually involved.

But last week’s show was different. Amid all the moral posturing, it featured two nuggets providing genuine insight into what happed during the tail end of the Trump presidency. One concerns the top military brass, who actively sought to block Trump’s last-minute order for a total troop withdrawal from Somalia and Afghanistan. The other shows speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer working the phones in their basement hideaway, as they tried to figure out what to do about a neo-fascist mob rampaging through congressional chambers just a few floors above.

Both depict a 235-year-old constitutional system in an advanced state of breakdown. In the first, general Keith Kellogg, national security advisor to vice-president Mike Pence, and general Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, respond with alarm to a presidential directive - dated November 11, just eight days after the election - ordering the Pentagon “to withdraw all US military forces from the Federal Republic of Somalia no later than 31 December 2020; and from the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan no later than 15 January 2021”.

The brass’s response was nyet. The order “is odd, it is non-standard, it is potentially dangerous,” Milley testifies in a video clip shown as part of the hearing. “I personally thought it was militarily not feasible nor wise.” Kellogg was even more hostile. Referring to colonel Douglas Macgregor - a decorated 1991 Gulf War combat leader serving as senior advisor to the secretary of defence - he says:

I proceeded to tell the PPO [presidential personnel office] and proceeded to tell Macgregor that if I ever saw anything like that [again], I would do something physical because I thought … [it] was a tremendous disservice to the nation.

And, by the way, that was a very, very contested issue. There were people who did not agree with getting out of Afghanistan. I appreciate their concerns, [since] an immediate departure … would have been catastrophic. It’s the same thing that president Biden went through. It would have been a debacle.1

So the military ended up substituting its own judgment instead. To be sure, Milley, Kellogg and the rest compromised by talking Trump into a reduction that still left 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan and an equal number in Iraq. But the fact that they tried to block a lawful order by a man who, constitutionally speaking, was still their commander in chief is startling. The fact that the January 6 committee, dominated by neocons like Wyoming’s Liz Cheney, daughter of ex-vice president Dick Cheney, evidently saw nothing wrong with the Pentagon’s response is even more so.

This is on top of accounts that Milley was preparing to take steps in case Trump took further action to prevent Joe Biden from entering the White House. “They may try, but they’re not going to fucking succeed,” he told associates, according to an account last year by Washington Post reporters Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig. “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.”2

Two coups were thus brewing simultaneously - one in the White House and another a few miles away in the Pentagon. Both sides were gearing up for civil war.


The other tidbit last week consists of seven minutes of behind-the-scenes video of Pelosi and Schumer seething with frustration, as they dial up governors, mayors and anyone else they think might be able to help lift the siege. Shot by Pelosi’s daughter, Alexandra, a documentary filmmaker, the footage is unusually polished and all the more effective as a consequence.3

“I’m going to call up the effin’ secretary of DOD [Department of Defense],” Schumer declares early on. Barking into an old-fashioned flip phone, he says: “We have some senators who are still in their hideaways. They need massive personnel now. Can you get the Maryland national guard to come too?” Leaning into the receiver, house speaker Pelosi puts in her two-cents’ worth: “I have something to say, Mr Secretary. I’m going to call the mayor of Washington DC right now and see what other outreach she has.”

The mayor? Why not the commissioner of parks and recreation? Twenty minutes later, Pelosi sounds uncertain when she gets hold of governor Ralph Northam of Virginia, the district of Columbia’s neighbour to the south. “Hi, governor, this is Nancy,” she begins. “Governor, I don’t know if you had been approached about the Virginia National Guard.” Her voice then trails off: “… but I still think you probably need the OK of the federal government in order to come into another jurisdiction.” When Northam agrees that he is legally precluded from sending state troops into DC, Pelosi goes off on a tangent:

Oh my gosh, they’re just breaking windows, they’re doing all kinds of, I mean … they say somebody was shot, it’s just, it’s just horrendous. And all at the instigation of the president of the United States. OK, thank you, governor, I appreciate what you’re doing, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to stay in touch.

It’s the same story when she reaches attorney general Jeffrey Rosen. “They’re breaking windows and going in obviously ransacking our offices and all the rest of that,” she tells him. “… The concern we have about personal harm …”

“Safety,” Schumer interjects.

“Personal safety,” she resumes, “it just transcends everything. But the fact is, on any given day, they’re breaking the law in many different ways. And, quite frankly, much of it at the instigation of the president of the United States ...”

“Yeah, why don’t you get the president to tell them to leave the Capitol, Mr Attorney General, in your law enforcement responsibility?” says Schumer.

Rioters were baying for the speaker’s blood. “Bring her out,” one cries. “Bring her out here. We’re coming in if you don’t bring her out.” But there was nothing Pelosi could do. She had no hot line to the Pentagon, no forces at her beck and call, no backup whatsoever. All she and Schumer could do was dial up officials at random in a vain search for assistance.

The video then takes a weird turn, as Pelosi’s id bubbles to the surface. She says in a call to vice-president Mike Pence:

What we are being told very directly is it’s going to take days for the Capitol to be OK again. We’ve gotten a very bad report about the condition of the House floor. There’s defecation and all that kind of thing as well.

She informs Schumer a few minutes later: “We’re getting a counterpoint that it could take time to clean up the poo-poo that they’re making all over, literally and figuratively, in the Capitol, and that it may take days to get back.”

No such incidents were reported, and Congress, in fact, was able to resume deliberations within hours. But, while it would take a Freudian to get to the bottom of Pelosi’s poo fixation, presumably it has something to do with neo-aristocratic hauteur - her net worth is estimated at $120 million - coupled with fear of the unwashed masses.


What does it all mean? Simply that the January 6 uprising was a complicated mix of aggression and collapse, whose effects are still making themselves felt. A “leadership void” had opened up in Washington, to quote committee member Jamie Raskin, that multiple forces were rushing to fill. One was Trump, who had sent a mob rampaging through the Capitol with the clear intent of cutting short the election certification process and forcing the contest into the House of Representatives, where he had a distinct constitutional advantage. The other consisted of top generals like Mark Milley, who were beginning to think the unthinkable about employing extra-constitutional counter-measures of their own. With the judicial and legislative branches both sidelined, the chain of command within the executive branch was starting to fracture, as the White House moved in one direction and the Pentagon peeled off in another.

As to why a void had opened up at the heart of the US constitutional system, it is a question that the January 6 panel cannot begin to answer - if only because members have all sworn an oath to “support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and are thus legally enjoined from criticising a document that is the source of the problem. If 28% of Americans say they have no faith in election results, according to a recent New York Times poll,4 it is not because Americans are unusually obdurate. Rather, it is because a system that places federal elections in the hands of 50 separate state governments, each with its own special rules and regulations, is not one that inspires confidence. To the contrary, it is an absurd baroque system fairly crying out for reform. Yet reform is impossible, since a dysfunctional constitutional amending clause allows smaller and smaller minorities to veto any and all structural change.

So nothing can be done. This is the reason behind another anomaly: the fact that 71% of voters say that democracy is at risk, according to the same Times poll, but only seven percent care - or at least only seven percent identify it as the most important problem facing the country. The same paralysis that gripped Washington in January 2021 is thus spreading throughout the rest of the country. Yet it all makes perfect sense. If constitutional reform is out of the question, then why bother? Why not save one’s energy for issues that matter, such as economic policy, even if that is up to an unelected Federal Reserve and therefore also out of the hands of the voters?

‘God, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change and the courage to change the things I can’ - such seems to be the American attitude. With Republicans assembling a small army of rightwing activists whose job will be to challenge what they see as irregularities at thousands of local polling places (a recipe for litigation and disruption), faith in US election results is set for another plunge. The same goes for hundreds of Republican candidates who claim that Democrats stole the election in 2020 and are out to steal it again. If they win in the upcoming midterm elections - and odds are looking better and better that they will - electoral confidence will decline even more.

Instead of a means of resolving disputes peacefully, elections are thus turning into mechanisms that pave the way for further conflict. This is what constitutional breakdown looks like, as legislators huddle in basements, generals countermand orders and rightwing mobs surge across Capitol Hill.

It is not pretty, but we can be absolutely confident that more is on the way.

  1. The segment begins at 2:06 at www.youtube.com/watch?v=7mhhCNqsrcI.↩︎

  2. D Lazare, ‘One coup attempt or two?’ Weekly Worker September 23 2021: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1364/one-coup-attempt-or-two.↩︎

  3. The video begins at 3:29 on the same YouTube clip (note 1).↩︎

  4. www.nytimes.com/2022/10/18/us/politics/midterm-election-voters-democracy-poll.html.↩︎