Gina Haspel, the CIA director, voiced concern about Trump’s extensive restructuring of Pentagon power, allegedly telling the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley: “We are on the way to a right-wing coup.” Her concerns were well-founded.
We have arrived at the one year anniversary of January 6, 2021, when supporters of the president waged war against a co-equal branch of government. Over the past few months, the public has been receiving piecemeal information about both this violent insurrection and the quieter plots that preceded it. While there are many unknowns, here is what is certain: there was an attempted coup on American soil.
In the weeks leading up to January 6, Trump and allies plotted to overturn the election and undemocratically seize power from President-elect Joe Biden. Then, on January 6, Trump supporters attacked the Capitol, potentially delaying certification.
Many have viewed these two threads – the ostensibly soft coup and the hard coup – as perhaps independent events. It’s important, now, to outline what we know and what questions are outstanding about the extent to which these various plots – from quiet proceduralism to violent insurrection – were intertwined.
The Eastman plot
In the weeks before January 6, 2021, Trump and allies mounted a multipronged scheme to overturn the election. Their command center was a “war room” at the Willard Hotel, in Washington, DC. Between November and January, the team mounted multiple legal challenges.
Trump pressured state election officials, as well as his own attorney general. Parallel to these efforts was the scheme outlined by John Eastman, in a now infamous memo: On January 6, Vice President Mike Pence could throw out electors from several key states if these states had proposed alternate electors, kicking the election to Trump.
As January 6 approached, however, Trump’s ability to carry out this plot became more tenuous. Why? Many Republicans in the states in question were willing to comply, but they needed more time.
At this point in time, there is no public evidence that Trump and his allies were coordinating with the insurrectionists with the explicit goal to stage an attack. We have not seen, for example, text messages where a Trump ally has said, “We want you to storm the Capitol.”
We do, however, have plenty of other evidence that paints a chilling portrait of possible, if not likely, coordination.
The insurrectionist groups mingled with Trump’s team in the days before January 6. For example, members of the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys and Stop the Steal were gathered at the Willard Hotel on the night of January 5. The Oath Keepers also served as personal security to Trump’s ally Roger Stone on January 5 and 6. At least one of the Proud Boys has admitted their plot was to stop the transfer of power.
Members of these same groups were also in contact with Trump’s allies in Congress, prior to January 6. In December, Ali Alexander, founder of Stop the Steal, texted Mo Brooks, a Republican representative, writing that “January 6 is a big moment in our Republic” and that his group would be in DC to “stand ready to help.”
Alexander also told Brooks that Michael Flynn would be in contact. Other organizers of the Stop The Steal rally allegedly met with “close to a dozen” Republican lawmakers or staff prior to January 6.
Additionally, January 6 rally organizers allegedly bought burner phones (cheap, pre-paid and disposable) to communicate with officials connected to Trump. One such organizer, Kylie Kremer, had formed a Facebook group “urging boots on the ground.”
Katrina Pierson, a Trump ally who was organizing the January 6 rally, arranged for the most extreme members of the pro-Trump crowd — such as Alex Jones and Ali Alexander — to give speeches on January 5.
That evening, Alexander inspired the crowd to chant “Victory or Death!” In early December, Alexander tweeted “I am willing to give my life for this fight.” He was then retweeted by the Arizona GOP, who asked: “He is, are you?”
Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, sent an email on January 5 informing an individual that the National Guard would “protect pro Trump people.” There is also evidence of contact between insurrectionists and Mark Meadows. According to a House report, Meadows “exchanged text messages with, and provided guidance to, an organizer of the January 6 rally … after the organizer told him ‘[t]hings have gotten crazy and I desperately need some direction.’”
Finally, we know that, once the attack was underway, John Eastman attempted to exploit the violence to further the coup. He wrote to Mike Pence’s lawyer during the insurrection and declared, “The ‘siege’ is because YOU and your boss did not do what was necessary.”
Keli Ward, head of the Arizona GOP, tweeted, “Congress is adjourned. Send the elector choice back to the legislatures.” Later that evening, Eastman wrote to Pence’s lawyer again, arguing that, given the debate had exceeded the allotted time, Pence should proceed to reject the electors from Arizona, just as was outlined in Eastman’s memo.
When we’re talking about coups, we have to talk about the military.
The details of what, exactly, was going on with the military between November 3, 2020, and January 6, 2021, remain murky. What we do know, however, paints a portrait of internal conflict, such that members of Trump’s team repeatedly attempted to exploit hard power in their coup attempt, whereas other members of the military took extraordinary measures to prevent this same action.
On November 9, 2020, Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper for insufficient loyalty and replaced him with Christopher Miller, who then served as Acting Defense Secretary. Trump also installed Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a Michael Flynn ally, to the position of Undersecretary for Intelligence and Security. Trump made other changes at the Pentagon, including installing a man who had called for Trump to declare martial law in a top position.
After Esper was fired, Gina Haspel, the CIA director, voiced concern about Trump’s extensive restructuring of Pentagon power, allegedly telling the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley: “We are on the way to a right-wing coup.” Her concerns were well-founded.
During this same period, Michael Flynn contacted the newly installed Watnick-Cohen to request that the DoD begin to “effectuate orders and seize ballots.” There would be, Flynn said, “an epic showdown over the election.” Sydney Powell, a lawyer advising Trump, also called Cohen and tried to enlist him in a plot to detain Haspel in Germany. Powell allegedly cited a Qanon conspiracy that Haspel was on a secret mission to destroy evidence of rigged voting machines. When speaking to Watnick-Cohen, Powell asked for a special operations mission to detain and force a confession from the CIA director.
Meanwhile, Acting Defense Secretary Miller and Chairman Milley were increasingly concerned about what would unfold on January 6, though their theories of violence diverged. Milley was concerned that troops, if placed on the streets in DC, could be redirected by Trump to do his bidding. Miller had a different fear: he did not necessarily believe Trump would redirect the military, but, rather that Trump supporters would goad troops into a “Boston Massacre Type Situation.”
The big picture
This is all just the tip of the iceberg. What we know is this: Trump and allies plotted a coup. They were in frequent contact with the individuals who would ultimately attack Congress. At the very least, Trump and allies knew this attack would advance their aims while it was underway. Trump and allies also repeatedly resorted to pressuring the Department of Defense to involve itself in their seizure of power. Some at DoD may have supported this scheme; others resisted it.
In the coming months, as we learn more information, it is crucial to tie these threads together, because, unfortunately, the Republican Party now has what they ran out of last January: time. They are using this time to restructure state elections and install Trump loyalists, thus laying the groundwork to make their next coup more successful.