Gen. Russel Honoré: Trump's coup attempt 'put us in the banana republic club'
Lieutenant General Russel L. Honoré and former President George W. Bush (Bush Archives)

On Jan. 6, 2021, Donald Trump and his confederates attempted a coup in order to nullify the results of the 2020 election. Had they succeeded, America's experiment in democratic self-governance would effectively have ended after nearly 250 years.

This was not "just" conceived as a "legal" coup. The terrorist attack by Trump's followers on the U.S. Capitol was central to the plan.

As confirmed by Cassidy Hutchinson's testimony before the House Jan. 6 committee last Tuesday, Donald Trump and his confederates knew that some of his followers were armed that day. Trump demanded that the Secret Service drop its defenses and allow his armed attack force to gather on the Ellipse. From there, Trump commanded his thousands of followers to march on the Capitol, perhaps in anticipation that they would kill Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other political leaders, with the goal of disrupting the certification of electoral votes. Trump apparently wanted to arrive at the Capitol himself, as a conquering hero who would overthrow congressional authority and declare himself "re-elected."

As we know, the latter part of that didn't happen. The Secret Service refused to bring Trump to the Capitol, and instead he watched the attack from the White House, cheering on his followers as they tried to hunt down Mike Pence.

In all, the attack on the Capitol was planned and premeditated, not "spontaneous" or "random" or the actions of an unruly mob. It was like something out of a bad Hollywood action movie — with one important difference: The "good guys" did not arrive at a climactic moment to save America from the evildoers.

As I wrote in an earlier essay for Salon, on Jan. 6, 2021,

there were no Special Forces commandos, Secret Service assault teams or FBI hostage rescue units making a dramatic assault on the Capitol Building — as would have happened in a Hollywood movie — ready to fight off Trump's terrorist mob and keep the members of Congress and other innocent people safe from harm.
Instead, it was rank-and-file Capitol police officers and other members of law enforcement who exemplified great courage in attempting to do that dangerous work. They were understaffed and unprepared, and ultimately could not keep Trump's rage-fueled attack force from breaching the building's defenses and running amok in an apparent hunt for Mike Pence, Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other perceived enemies.
In the real world, there was no national leader who rose to the occasion, placing Trump and his cabal under arrest, delivering a rousing speech about the true values of American democracy and perhaps declaring the sixth of January as a new national holiday, a second Independence Day.

It is a matter of public record that some of Trump's advisers encouraged him to invoke the Insurrection Act and declare a national emergency, then ordering the U.S. military to seize voting machines in an effort to "prove" that the election had been "stolen" by nefarious forces. Was the incompetence displayed by the country's law enforcement, military and others on Jan. 6 just random happenstance or something more sinister?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré. He is a decorated 37-year U.S. Army veteran and a globally recognized expert on leadership, climate change and disaster preparedness. His expert commentary has been featured by the New York Times, CNN, CBS, the Washington Post, NPR, PBS and other leading media outlets.

Honoré is also the leader of an alliance of groups and individuals known as the GreenARMY, which is working to protect clean air and clean water and to create healthy communities in Louisiana. He first rose to public prominence for his role in coordinating relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Honoré was tasked by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with reviewing security at the U.S. Capitol complex following the horrific events of Jan. 6.

Throughout this conversation, Honoré warns that American democracy is in extreme peril from the Republican Party and the MAGA movement. He shares his insights about the events of Jan. 6 and his belief that the Trump regime very likely left defenses at the Capitol vulnerable to attack on purpose, as part of the coup plot. He argues that Trump's plans to use the military as part of his coup plot likely would have failed — but says that many questions still need to be asked about how such a scenario might play out, and the military's adherence to constitutional order and the rule of law.

In addition, Gen. Honoré argues that Donald Trump must be prosecuted by Attorney General Merrick Garland — and says that if Garland is unwilling to follow through on that responsibility, then President Biden should replace him with someone willing to defend the rule of law.

Toward the end of this conversation, Honoré implores the American people to vote as though the future of their country and democracy depends on it, saying that defeating the Republican-fascist movement in America is this generation's defining struggle.

How are you managing your feelings right now, given everything that's happening?

It's all about figuring out how we go from being victims to being survivors. The role of a leader is to try to figure out how you survive and not drown in being victimized. If we lose our democracy, we'll never get it back. Jan. 6 was an attempted coup that basically would have ended democracy in America as we know it.

It would have taken us down a path of authoritarianism. As a senior military officer, I used to speak to foreign armies in developing countries. I would share with them the concept of a peaceful transfer of power, the power of democracy, the power of the peoples' right to vote and the concept that the military is subordinate to civil control. I would instruct them that coups are not acceptable.

Once Jan. 6 happened, the United States lost its place on the high ground as an example to the world, and especially developing democracies, that as much as we may disagree with one another we always have a peaceful transfer of power.

Once Jan. 6 happened, the U.S. lost its place on the high ground as an example to the world, and especially developing democracies.

What happened on Jan. 6 put us in the banana republic club. It gives me great discomfort and agitation that because of the thuggish attitude of Donald Trump, the United States is now on the level of the type of democracy that one would see in a developing country where coups are almost normal.

Watching American democracy being ambushed by the Republicans and their authoritarian movement, I don't see that sort of urgency. The substantive resistance and the "urgency of now" is not there. Some people are waking up, but it's afraid it's too late.

Donald Trump is a political thug who basically said, "Hey, I'm the president. I'm empowered to do anything I want to do." He is far worse than President Nixon. Nixon wasn't a political thug. He still had some respect for the law, even though he broke it and said, "OK, I'll leave."

The Mueller report was a clear indictment of Donald Trump for his crimes related to Russia, but there were no consequences in terms of prosecuting him because of a memorandum from the DOJ that says the president of the United States should not be indicted while in office. The Democrats and other pro-democracy people are playing by the rules, and the Republicans and Donald Trump are not. We have to adjust the Constitution and our laws to prevent another leader like Donald Trump from taking power ever again.

There are still so many people in the news media and political elites — including the Democrats at the highest levels — who are afraid to speak plainly and to describe Trump and the Republicans in clear and direct language. We are under attack by fascism here in America. Jan. 6 was an attempted fascist coup.

They're afraid of Donald Trump's voters. The Democrats are hamstrung by the Republicans and the filibuster in the Senate. These Trump MAGA followers send their people to Congress. Their underlying objective is to roll back civil rights and oppress people who are not white.

As I watched Jan. 6, I kept wondering if the Trump regime gave some type of stand-down order to the U.S. military and law enforcement. Is it that easy to decapitate the United States government? Help me understand what we saw that day.

It was plain to me that the White House was complicit. I watched the entire thing. I know how the United States government is supposed to respond to these scenarios. I used to work on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I'd been acting J3 [director of operations] for about a month, and prior to that I was a deputy J3 in 1999 and 2000. So I knew this game. I knew the role of the military, because my role on the Joint Chiefs of Staff was to coordinate military support to civil authorities.

It was plain to me that the White House was complicit. I know how the government is supposed to respond to these scenarios. I knew this game.

I know the law. When we have a State of the Union and we finish one inauguration, guess what we do? We start the next inauguration committee. That's how much planning goes into this. After 9/11, we created the term "national special security event," and you've seen it. We use it for the Super Bowl. We use it for the inauguration. We use it for the president's State of the Union. We call this an NSSE.

And what creates an NSSE is when we have both houses of Congress in session, and we have the president at the Capitol. That event, along with the chatter on the internet and what [Steve] Bannon and Trump were saying about Jan. 6, should have triggered a national special security event. There should have been hundreds of extra police there.

Who's in charge of security at the Capitol? The Secret Service. Who declares a national special security event? Homeland Security. But on that day, where was the secretary of Homeland Security, who Trump appointed? On an overseas farewell tour. He wasn't even here in country during what should have been a significant national security event.

There is something else to take into consideration: As Jan. 6 approached, Trump gutted the Pentagon after he lost the election. He put his own people in the Pentagon. In my opinion, those three to four hours of indecision in the Pentagon [on Jan. 6] had much to do with the secretary of defense at the time, who was being complicit in order to make Trump happy by not deploying the National Guard. Approval for the national guard has to go through the secretary of defense and the secretary of the Army, because D.C. is not a state.

But as somebody who knows the Constitution, every uniformed member of the military in the Pentagon should have strapped on his or her gear and went to the Capitol. First of all, the Capitol is federal grounds. We can use any troops we have, federal or National Guard, to protect federal grounds without instituting the Posse Comitatus Act. We have a right to protect federal grounds and we have plans to do that. We have 600 Marines on standby within a few miles of the Capitol. Their only purpose is to go to the Capitol in the event there's a chemical or biological attack. That's their only purpose. They were not called.

The D.C. Guard was not called because of the indecisiveness inside the Army and the Department of Defense. There were other federal troops available. Everybody in that military complex could have been mobilized to go help protect the Capitol, because what we saw unfold was an attempted coup on the Capitol to overthrow the government. And they did it on television in broad daylight.

If it were Black folks who did this, or brown folks or even white liberals or progressives, it would have been a bloodbath. Number one, they would never allow it to happen. If the attack had somehow happened, the security forces would have unleashed all hell on them.

Many people have come to that same conclusion. If the Trump followers who attacked the Capitol had been Black folks, then the extra shift of the Capitol police would have been there. They have about 1,800 uniformed police. Only 800 of them or so were on duty. The FBI was impotent. The FBI director himself said he didn't know anything about the report that came in from the Norfolk field office. The Department of Homeland Security didn't have standby teams. This is ridiculous. Our government failed that day because of complicit actions and the way the White House engineered these events so that there would not be a proper response.

It was a failure in government, failure in the Justice Department, failure in the FBI. And the Secret Service was certainly compromised. I will never think about the Secret Service the way I used to.

How much of this was just general incompetence and how much of if it was planned incompetence by Trump and his agents with the goal of leaving the government vulnerable to attack?

It looked incompetent at the time, but it was a complicit act from the White House down, with the intention of overthrowing the government.

Answering those questions is the purpose of the Jan. 6 committee. The Justice Department needs to answer those questions as well. It looked incompetent at the time, but it was a complicit act from the White House down with the intention of overthrowing the government, using a plan that included the Green Bay Sweep, which has been widely discussed. Had Donald Trump not been president he probably would have been arrested on Jan. 6 for his role in what happened with the coup and the attack on the Capitol.

If Trump invoked the Insurrection Act and tried to declare martial law, would the military have listened?

As incompetent as they were on that day, I still have confidence in our military's leadership. The order would not have gone out. It's just like if Trump had decided to launch a nuclear weapon, it would not have happened. The secretary of defense would have issued the order, but the order wouldn't go out and the military lawyers would have stepped forward and somebody would have stopped Trump. It is rumored that [Michael] Flynn wanted the military to seize the voting machines as part of the coup attempt. That order would have been against the law. It would not have been followed.

The Trump attack force had guns. They were going to kill people. They wanted to kill Mike Pence. The Republicans and their followers are openly planning for political violence, if not an insurgency. None of this is a secret.

The racial demographics of this country are changing. The way to keep white people in power is to put Trump and people like him back in the White House. The demographics of the country might change, but the Republicans and the Trumpists and their followers want to own the Senate and they want to own the House and they want to own the Supreme Court and they want to own the White House. They have a whole media machine to help them do it, too.

In terms of another civil war or widespread right-wing political violence, how do you assess those possibilities, as a military expert?

I don't think a second civil war would be like the last civil war. I do think that there could be attempts in Texas and Florida to secede. That is against the law. If a state secedes, the federal government imposes martial law there.

How close did Donald Trump and his coup cabal come to succeeding on Jan. 6?

Forty feet. Had they got to Pence, they would have disrupted the whole transition of power. Now, had they got to Pence, I do think the Secret Service would have started shooting people. I think they would have stood their ground, but you do need to understand that even Pence was questioning the intent of the Secret Service because he wouldn't get in that car. There is so much going on with the Secret Service that needs to be investigated and resolved.

What would the military have done? Would they have followed the orders of Trump if he had successfully executed a coup and remained in power?

That's not a scenario we've ever war-gamed in the military that I know of, and I was an officer at the highest level. I used to go to National Security Council meetings and meet with the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff just about every morning. We used to talk to other militaries about avoiding a coup or something of that nature. I would imagine if such a thing happened here in the U.S., as you described with Jan. 6 and that outcome, it would be a matter of the Constitution and of listening to the lawyers.

What do you think happens with Trump? Do you think Attorney General Garland prosecutes him? Does this man ever suffer any consequences?

If we lose our democracy, we'll never get it back. Garland has no option. He either needs to charge within six months or Biden needs to fire him and put somebody in that will. Trump needs to be charged. He needs to go before a grand jury.

What advice would you give the American people in this moment of crisis?

You better get off your butt and go vote. That's my message to America.

Do you think that the 21st century will be America's century if we continue on this path?

We fought two world wars and we fought a civil war. The two world wars we fought were to secure the freedom of other people. We fought the Civil War to end slavery. Every generation has a war to fight. This generation needs to understand that their war is to save our democracy and to prevent authoritarian rule. You don't need to pick up a weapon to fight this war. You need to vote for what is right. I'm still optimistic that we can maintain our democracy, but we need to remind people, as I often do, that we've got to hold the damn line, because if we lose our democracy, we are not getting it back.