How Trump Could Manipulate the Military

Photo of author
Written By Pinang Driod

When my colleague Tom Nichols, who taught at the Naval War College for 25 years, warns people that Donald Trump might be a threat to democracy, they often ask him to prove it. Yes, Trump has said dictator-like things, but if he won a second term, aren’t there barriers in place to prevent him from acting on his rhetoric? Would he really be able to persuade senior command in the military to use force against American citizens? Would he be able to get past the Geneva Conventions? Wouldn’t Congress or the courts intervene to stop him from acting on his worst impulses?

Nichols has never served in the military, but he knows its rules and its culture well. And he has watched over the years as some of his students became more openly partisan. In this episode of Radio Atlantic, Nichols explains how a reelected President Trump could bend the military to his will and how political schisms in the military could happen. He emphasizes how close Trump came to achieving some of his goals in his last term, how ill prepared we are as a democracy that assumes a “minimum level of decency in the people who are elected to public office.” And he breaks down his personal nightmare scenario.

Listen to the conversation here:

Subscribe here: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | YouTube | Google Podcasts | Pocket Casts

The following is a transcript of the episode:

Hanna Rosin: Last Tuesday, during a town hall on Fox News, Sean Hannity asked Donald Trump the question, straightforwardly.

Sean Hannity: Do you in any way have any plans whatsoever, if reelected president, to abuse power, to break the law, to use the government to go after people?

Rosin: Now, Hannity is friendly to Trump. So this seemed like a question that was supposed to quiet some worries. Because lately, Trump and his allies have been sending a lot of strong dictator-like signals, saying they would “come after” or “crush” people who are unfriendly to them or disloyal. But Trump did not treat it like a softball. And the exchange continued:

Hannity: You are promising America tonight, you would never abuse power as retribution against anybody.

Donald Trump: Except for day one.

[Crowd cheers]

Trump: He’s going crazy.

Hannity: Except for?

Trump: Except for day one.

Rosin: But Trump was not done.

Trump: We love this guy. He says, “You’re not gonna be a dictator, are you?” I said: “No, no, no. Other than day one.”

Rosin: If you ask people who study how dictators rise, they’ll often say that would-be dictators don’t hide their intentions. It’s just that the people they’re talking to fail to take them seriously until it’s too late, which honestly makes a whole lot of sense to me.

Because I have read about the many recent dictator-like statements by candidate Trump. And yet, I experience them like I’m watching a movie about the rise of a dictator somewhere else or, like, in some other time, not right now in the country I actually live in. But I want to take this more seriously.

I’m Hanna Rosin. And in this episode of Radio Atlantic, we talk to Tom Nichols. He’s a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he often writes about the U.S. military.

Now, Tom wasn’t in the military himself, but he spent 25 years teaching officers at the Naval War College, and a big part of his job was to talk to them about the Constitution and their role in American democracy.

Tom Nichols: You know, over the years when people like me have said, Donald Trump is a threat to democracy, well-meaning people, people of goodwill, have said, Okay, I get that you’re concerned, but what would that actually look like?


Rosin: Tom recently wrote a story with the headline: “A Military Loyal to Trump.” And in our conversation, he fills in a critical part of the Trump-as-dictator scenario, which is how a reelected Trump could bend the military to his will.


Nichols: It’s easy to just get your hair on fire and say, Oh, Trump’s a fascist. He’s a threat to democracy. He would do terrible things. I think it was important to say, Here’s how it could happen in a concrete way. Here are the steps he would have to take. Here are the things he’s done that would get him closer to that goal of being an authoritarian leader.

Rosin: You’ve said that if he’s elected, Donald Trump will attempt to make the U.S. armed forces loyal to him, and not to the Constitution. That’s a very big thing to say. Why are you so sure about that?

Nichols: Well, if you look at Donald Trump’s first term, he viewed the senior command of the U.S. military and the senior civil servants of the Defense Department as obstacles and opponents to things that he wanted to do, including using force against American citizens in the streets. So I have no doubt that he views the military, and particularly senior commanders, as obstacles to his exercise of power.

He’s talked about wanting Mark Milley, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, executed. You know, we don’t have to think very hard about Trump’s intentions because he says the quiet part out loud all the time.

Rosin: I know. That’s the hard part about Trump, I feel like. It’s like, it’s hard to understand what’s talk, how plausible anything is. And whenever he says things like this, I immediately think, Well, this is America. We have a system in place. That system keeps somebody like that, a president even, in check.

Nichols: Except that at the very end of his first term, he actually did try to purge the senior ranks of the Defense Department by dumping the secretary of defense. He tried to install Anthony Tata, this retired one-star general who’s kind of a kook and a conspiracy theorist, into the number-three slot in the Defense Department.

He’s made pretty plain that he’s actually willing to engage in those kinds of personnel changes to get what he wants. The difference is the first time around, he didn’t really know what he was doing and there were people around him who were determined to stop him.

This time around, there just won’t be anybody determined to stop it.

Rosin: Tom, you know a lot more about military culture and operations than most people. Inside that culture, how does politics or partisanship—how does it get expressed?

Nichols: When I began teaching at the Naval War College, I was there long enough ago that I actually had people who were prior-enlisted folks in Vietnam. And the thing I’ve noticed is that our officers are resolutely nonpartisan. They serve the Constitution. But the willingness to think in very partisan terms was growing over the years. By the time I retired, in 2022, I was hearing officers saying things almost verbatim from, you know, talking points from Fox the night before. You know, officers, for example, you know, were asking me about why we’re not doing more to reveal the Chinese George Soros hoax about climate change, kind of stuff.

And that worried me. I started hearing a lot more kind of fever-swamp, conspiracy-theory stuff. Because, you know, the military, we have a citizen-soldier military. It’s one of the great strengths of our democracy, but every military, to some extent, lives in something of a bubble. And I feel like over the years that I was teaching, that I could see that bubble getting thicker and thicker and more detached from society in general, I think—at least among a relatively small number of officers, but much more than I would have expected and certainly more than I was comfortable with by the end of my career.

Rosin: What was your sense of their understanding or your students’ understanding of civic duty, how the Constitution works, you know, things like that?

Nichols: Yeah. I think that’s an important question. And I don’t want to be overly alarmist about the men and women that I’ve been teaching and working with for some 30 years. They are resolutely patriotic people who understand that they do not swear an oath to any individual president.

But I think there’s enough concern about that, that Mark Milley, when he retired, made it a point to repeat that, to say, And remember—he said on his way out the door—we do not swear an oath to a particular president.

But I do worry that the lack of civic education in the United States in general has also extended to the military. And I have a particular concern that it will become too easy to smudge the difference between loyalty to, or not loyalty, but obedience to the president’s orders and obedience to the Constitution, because Trump will say, as he has done in the past: I am the ultimate authority on what is constitutional. I am the ultimate authority on what is to be obeyed or not to be obeyed. He has said, you know, If there are things in the Constitution I don’t like, I’ll just terminate them.

Rosin: Mm-hmm.

Nichols: And, again, you only need a very small number of people at the top to agree with him about that.

And then what they will do is put hope in that the chain of command, that obedience, that if a sergeant gets an order, he assumes that the lieutenant who gave it is giving the right order and that the lieutenant who got it from the captain, that she is giving the right order, and so on, all the way up to the chain of command. If things don’t get stopped at the very top, they can spiral out of control as they go down through the chain of command because you don’t want a bunch of people in the military having to stop and say, No. Wait. I have to go consult the constitutional law books about whether or not I should carry out that order.

That’s something that should happen very close to the president, at the White House, between him and his senior military leaders. Trump has made it clear he just might not care about anybody telling him that something is illegal or unconstitutional.

Rosin: Right, right. Okay, so he doesn’t care. Can we get into some specific examples? Like, how would this actually play out? I just need some specific scenarios to understand it.

Nichols: Well, one thing to consider is that Trump will want to issue orders that are probably unlawful, certainly an ethical problem for the military.

So Trump could, for example, order people to commit war crimes, because he clearly has no compunction about whether our forces actually commit war crimes. Take the example of Eddie Gallagher. Eddie Gallagher was a Navy SEAL, right. The best of the best. He was court-martialed for war crimes, for shooting at civilians, potentially for murder.

The only thing he was actually convicted of when it was over, after the testimony even of his own comrades in the SEALs, was photographing himself with a dead body. Trump intervened to make sure that Gallagher could keep his Trident, his badge of being a Navy SEAL, which is a huge kind of trespass, because normally only the SEALs decide who gets to keep that Trident. So imagine that in the future Trump says, You know what? Let’s desecrate bodies. Let’s commit war crimes. Let’s put the fear of God in these people, whoever they are, wherever we are, by doing, you know, terrible things and photographing it. And don’t worry—I’m the commander in chief. Your obedience to me removes the stain from you. I won’t let you be court-martialed for it.

Rosin: Yeah. But what’s the larger significance of doing something like that, of the president allowing something like that to happen?

Nichols: Because the message from the president will be, especially when it comes time, if we get to that terrible moment where if the president wants to use force against Americans (for example, if there’s another January 6), then he says, Listen, I’m going to send in the Army, and none of my people are going to get arrested. You’re not going to disperse them. The Capitol police are not going to arrest these people. And if they want to march into the House, then they’re going to do it. And if there are protests against me, I will tell them to shoot at people.

You acclimate an institution to getting used to that by issuing these terrible orders and getting them to fulfill them over and over and over again over time. I worry that he will just kind of corrode the norms and traditions. The U.S. military—and I feel that I need to say this again—the people for whom I have intense admiration, their culture is built on honor and loyalty and duty. And if Trump chips away at that every day with a small number of people at the top, I worry about what happens at the ultimate moment when Trump says, You know what? I didn’t lose an election, and we are marching to the Capitol, or, I don’t feel like having any protests against me in Washington today.

Remember, he actually wanted to call out troops against the protesters in Washington, and his own secretary of defense said, That’s a really bad idea. Don’t do that.

He won’t make that mistake again. The next secretary of defense is going to be somebody who nods and says, That’s a great idea, sir. Let’s get ’em out there.


Rosin: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back: What barriers normally exist against these nightmare scenarios?


Rosin: Okay, we’re back. So Tom, in Trump’s first term, we got used to the idea that certain institutions of government held off some of his worst impulses. What would stop him in a second term?

Nichols: There are two institutions that are the most likely to stand in Trump’s way, if he returns to power, when it comes to attacking his opponents, undermining democracy, breaking the rule of law, and squelching any kind of dissent or protest against him. He needs to control two institutions: the Justice Department and the U.S. military. And if he can get control of both of those, he’s most of the way there to be able to do whatever he wants.

And I’m not hypothesizing. We saw him try to do it. We came within a whisker of it just before January 6, where his own appointees of the Justice Department walked in and said, If you do these things—including appointing people like Jeffrey Clark, you know, making him the acting attorney general—you’re going to have mass resignations. Now maybe that would work, but Trump at this point, I think, would say, Great. Mass resignations, and I’ve got a whole list of people now who will step into those jobs. I think lists of people who would take these jobs are already being compiled by Trump loyalists. And I think the answer would be, if someone walks in and says, Mr. President, if you do this, I’ll resign, he’ll say, Don’t let the door hit you in the butt on the way out.

We always talk about, Well, the Senate won’t confirm these people. That’s the bar. Well, what if Trump says, as he already has—it’s not a what-if; he’s actually done this—Okay, fine. You didn’t confirm him. I’m sending him over to the Pentagon to sit next to the guy who’s in that job?

That’s a lot of pressure on appointees to say, you know, to be the people to stand up and say, I am not going to follow the orders of the president of the United States, and especially in a military organization where that is just anathema. That’s heresy.

And in normal times, that’s a good thing. In a normal democracy, you don’t want military officers saying, I have your order and now I’ll think about it.

Rosin: Yeah.

Nichols: Donald Trump, he wanted to kill Bashar al-Assad. He called the Pentagon and said, Let’s take this guy out. And the then secretary of defense said, We’ll get right on that, Mr. President. And then he hung up the phone and he turned to an aide and he said, We’re not doing any of that.

And I think there will be more and more of those, kind of, fork-in-the-road moments where Trump, if Trump is president, he’ll say, I want to do this, and someone behind a desk or in uniform is going to have to sit back and say, Am I really going to do that?

Rosin: Right. I mean, I like to think that there are a lot of Jim Mattises, a lot of Mark Milleys out there—these are people who had some power, appealed to their own conscience at some point, you know, understood who they were serving, which was the Constitution in the end—and that there are more of them.

Nichols: I would like to think there are more of them too. And I think most of the military is like—the people that I knew are certainly a lot more like Mark Milley and Jim Mattis than they’re going to be like some of the other people that surrounded Trump. But as I’ve often wondered, you know, how many more of these people are like Anthony Tata, the guy that Trump tried to, you know, stick into the third slot at the Defense Department? Or this retired colonel, Douglas MacGregor, that he tried to make an ambassador to Germany and then, when that failed, sent him over to the Pentagon?

Again, there are a lot more Milleys and Mattises out there, but there’s also a lot of Tatas and MacGregors out there—not as many, I think, but as I keep wanting to emphasize, you only need a handful. That’s the real problem, that if you control a handful at the top, you can gain control of a lot of the institution very quickly.

Rosin: So if Trump gets what he likes to call “my generals,” and then he wants to do something that feels blatantly unconstitutional, are there not checks in place that would stop him if he gives an unlawful command?

Nichols: Well, the first barrier to an unlawful command is the officer to whom it is given saying, I decline that order. Let’s just take an example: I don’t know, you know, Commit a war crime, right? Kill POWs, which is flatly illegal. (We are signatories to the Geneva Conventions. You can’t do that.) And Trump, as he often did during his rallies, for example, would say, Go ahead and do it. I’ll cover you. I’ll be your top cover for this.

That first barrier is an officer or a secretary of defense, even, who says, I am not going to transmit that order. And in a normal country, back when America was, you know, in the pre-Trump days, even the threat of that would be enough to stop a president from considering some of these things.

But what if Trump says, Well, okay. You’re relieved, as he did with so many of his national security advisors, or with Secretary Esper, who he fired. You know, Great. You’re not on board; you’re out. I’m gonna take the next guy behind you and the next guy behind him, until somebody fulfills this order.

The next barrier to that would be, what? A court? The Senate? The Congress? But again, what do you do if the president of the United States says, I am the Article II power. Article II, Section 2, says I’m the commander in chief of the armed forces, and I don’t recognize your authority. I don’t care?

Rosin: Is that a thing? Do we misunderstand something fundamental?

Nichols: I don’t know. We’ll find out, right? If the president says, I don’t recognize your authority to do this, and so I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing, what does Congress do at that point? Congress says, Well, we cut off funding to the Defense Department? We use the power of the purse?

These things take time. Remember, Donald Trump tried to create an entirely separate foreign policy regarding Ukraine than the one his own administration was publicly committed to. Like, in public, he said, Of course we support Ukraine. They’re our friends. And then privately, he said to a handful of people, Forget all that. Call Ukraine. Tell them that unless they investigate Joe Biden, they’re out of luck. And then he denied it.

I mean, I guess the bottom line for all of this is our system of government, and our Constitution, is not set up to deal with intentionally and flagrantly criminal behavior from the president of the United States. Our entire Constitution is based on a minimum level of decency in the people who are elected to public office. It’s not designed to cope with somebody like Donald Trump.

And in the end, the only weapon that you would have against Donald Trump would be impeachment and removal, which, I suppose could get ugly if Trump said, Well, I’m not leaving the White House. Then you literally have to go in and drag him out. But as we’ve already seen, the Republicans are not going to be a break on Donald Trump’s behavior.

He was impeached twice and the Republicans have acquitted him twice, and I just don’t see any of those guardrails functioning this time around if Trump is returned to office, in part because he’s going to make the case of: The country is with me. The people are with me. The Army is with me. He used to say that, which, you know, is a pretty uncomfortable thing to hear. And I just don’t—is it a thing? That’s a great question. I hope we never find out.

Rosin: Can I ask you—it sounds like you are genuinely worried—what is your actual biggest fear? Like, if you actually let your mind wander to the worst place, what is your scariest scenario?

Nichols: Two things keep me awake at night. One is that Trump provokes a schism within the armed forces in the United States—that we have pro- and anti-Trump factions within the armed forces that don’t necessarily come to open blows with each other but that paralyze our effectiveness as a military.

There may be talented and experienced officers who will simply resign or refuse to carry out orders that are unconstitutional, and then operations that we actually may need to be conducting get bogged down in internal fights about who’s giving which orders, and Who am I supposed to listen to? Do I listen to the guy that was the appointee, or do I listen to the guy who’s obviously the president’s pick, who’s sitting right next to him? What do I do if the chief of staff in the White House calls me, who has no power, but says the president wants X?

And that can happen even in the best of times just through miscommunication. I really worry about what happens if that becomes something that happens because of a partisan political divide within the military. I can’t even imagine the words partisan political divide in the American military.

Like, I’ve never really—I’ve spent years lecturing at the Naval War College saying how fortunate we were not to have that problem.

Rosin: Mm- hmm.

Nichols: But Donald Trump will actively try to create that problem if he thinks it serves his purposes.

Rosin: Mm-hmm.

Nichols: The other thing that keeps me up at night is Donald Trump in control of nuclear weapons.

Rosin: Yeah.

Nichols: There’s no way around that. Nuclear weapons, colloquially, are referred to as the president’s weapon. Only the president of the United States can authorize the use of nuclear weapons. I just worry about the fact that Donald Trump, who I think is a deeply unstable person, shouldn’t be anywhere near America’s nuclear arsenal. And if he’s commander in chief, he will have that daily code, that little biscuit in his pocket that lets him unleash nuclear disaster if he really wants to.

We are relying on people who have been trained to follow the orders of the commander in chief. We are relying on men and women in uniform to say, I’m not going to do that.

Rosin: Mm-hmm. And that’s not in their nature, generally.

Nichols: And it’s not in their nature, and it’s not fair to them.


Rosin: Tom, thank you for laying that out in such great detail. I feel like one of the issues we have with this Trump-as-dictator discussion is a failure of imagination. Like, we just can’t get our heads around what it would actually look like, and you definitely help with that, and I appreciate it.

Nichols: Thank you.


Rosin: This episode of Radio Atlantic was produced by Kevin Townsend. It was edited by Claudine Ebeid, fact-checked by Sara Krolewski, and engineered by Rob Smierciak. Claudine Ebeid is the executive producer for Atlantic Audio, and Andrea Valdez is our managing editor. I’m Hanna Rosin. Thank you for listening.


Leave a Comment

egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr egr