The Lafayette Square debacle has become a kind of moral X-ray for the Trump administration’s national security apparatus. It has revealed which members are willing to defend and participate in a miniaturized version of an authoritarian coup, and which of them recoil.
The latest defector is General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who renounced his high-profile participation. “I should not have been there,” he confessed in a recorded video commencement address to National Defense University, reports Helene Cooper. “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”
Milley joins Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who distanced himself from the operation and made known his opposition to deploying troops to patrol protests. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s scathing response — “as of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper,” but that “should the president lose faith, we will all learn about that in the future” — clarified how badly the president took the comment.
On the other side is Attorney General William Barr, who has gone out of his way not only to defend the operation but to repeat some of the most absurd lies the administration has presented in its defense. Barr insists the operation was necessary self-defense against dangerous protesters, and denies police used tear gas, despite conclusive proof.
All these comments should be seen as a kind of shadow-boxing around Trump’s authoritarianism. The Pentagon has sent encouraging signals that it wishes to play no role in Trump’s ongoing war on democratic norms. Barr is revealing once again that he is all-in on authoritarianism.
The ongoing revolt of the security Establishment has enraged Trump, and likely provides the context for his tweet this morning celebrating the operation as a great victory. Trump’s boast not only defends the decision, but gloats that the protesters were too weak and pathetic to put up a fight. The fact that they were unarmed, of course, undermines the entire rationale for attacking them, but Trump’s mind is only able to process this fact as evidence of their weakness:
Calling the Secret Service the “S.S.” is an unintentionally revealing Trumpian touch. Of course, the president was not attempting to compare his protective service with notorious Nazi secret police, and he was surely too addled to grasp the historic resonance.
But it is a perfectly apt symbolic message to his underlings. If they stand behind him, he will implicate them, either through malice or sheer bungling, and they will be recorded in history as complicit. And the more Trump appears likely to lose, the greater the incentive for those around him to consider how they will be viewed by a history in which Trump’s presidency is remembered as a despicable but quickly corrected error.