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Why Trump's response to Gen. Milley makes an awful story worse

Reports that Gen. Milley drew comparisons between Trump's and Hitler's rhetoric are chilling. Trump's response made matters worse.

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It wasn't that long ago when Donald Trump held Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley in high regard, even treating the general — and not the secretary of defense — as the top decision-maker at the Pentagon.

That did not last. In June 2020, for example, Milley publicly expressed regret for his presence during Trump's Lafayette Square debacle. (The Republican wasn't pleased by the general's reaction, deeming it a betrayal.) Soon after, as the then-president tried to discredit his own country's electoral system, and raised the prospect of ignoring election results he didn't like, the Joint Chiefs chairman made explicit that the armed forces would not be involved in the electoral process or resolving an election dispute.

As Election Day neared, the Trump campaign even included Milley in a commercial, without the general's consent or approval, despite the military's strict rules.

Behind the scenes, however, the general's concerns were even more serious.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, worried that then-President Donald Trump would try to use the military to attempt a coup after the 2020 election and vowed to prevent it. That's according to a new book by Washington Post reporters Phil Rucker and Carol Leonnig, "I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump's Catastrophic Final Year," which will be released next week.

According to a Washington Post account, Milley was so worried about the prospect of Trump trying to use military as part of a coup attempt that the general privately compared the then-president's rhetoric to Adolf Hitler's rhetoric during the rise of Nazi Germany.

"This is a Reichstag moment," Milley told aides, according to the book, comparing Trump's election lies to the 1933 attack on Germany's parliament that Hitler used as a pretext to establish a Nazi dictatorship. The general added, "The gospel of the Fuhrer."

To that end, according to the book's account, the general informally explored ways to stand in the Republican president's way in the event he moved forward with plans for a coup.

It's worth noting for context that when many Trump critics raised public fears last fall about the Republican trying to hold onto power by way of a coup, those observers were routinely derided for entertaining a hysterical and unrealistic idea. And yet, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, after having spent a considerable amount of time around the then-president, was apparently worried about the same thing.

At this point, it's tempting to simply stop and come to grips with these chilling revelations. If accurate, the book's reporting suggests our democracy was so imperiled last fall that the senior officer in the United States military seriously considered a dangerous possibility: an unhinged president might try to use force to claim power he didn't earn.

It's a dynamic that reinforces concerns that the nation's political system is burdened by an ongoing sickness that threatens our democracy. Similarly, it seems like the sort of thing voters should be aware of as the former president maintains his role as the head of the Republican Party and a viable 2024 contender.

But we can't stop here because Trump apparently learned of the book's revelations and decided to make matters even worse.

The former president issued a bizarre, 400-word statement yesterday, which included some extraordinary claims. Trump wrote:

  • He only tapped Milley to serve as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs because his former Defense secretary, James Mattis, didn't like him. In other words, according to Trump, he made a mistake hiring Mattis, and then made another mistake by hiring Milley based on the opinions of his original mistake.
  • He expected Milley to "protect" him during the Lafayette Square fiasco.
  • He was offended by Milley's willingness to change the names of military bases that were named for those who fought against Americans.
  • "If I was going to do a coup, one of the last people I would want to do it with is General Mark Milley."

It's this last point that practically reads like a confession.

What's more, despite the public accounts about the Joint Chiefs chairman comparing Trump's rhetoric to Hitler's -- a point that's come to the fore more than once recently — the former president's pushback chose to ignore this entirely.

If Trump hoped his statement would make him look better and Milley look worse, he got this exactly backwards.