Skip to main content

Police in riot gear patrol near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Sept. 18, 2021, during a rally by allies of Donald Trump.Brynn Anderson/The Associated Press

The United States could be subject to a military coup after the next presidential election unless it acts now to tamp down signs of insurrection within the ranks, three retired generals are warning.

In a Washington Post op-ed, retired brigadier-general Steven Anderson and retired major-generals Paul Eaton and Antonio Taguba contend that, if former president Donald Trump or a similar candidate loses again in 2024, renegade military units might overthrow the election winner and install Mr. Trump in the White House.

“We … are increasingly concerned about the aftermath of the 2024 presidential election and the potential for lethal chaos inside our military,” the generals write in the op-ed, published Friday afternoon. “In short: We are chilled to our bones at the thought of a coup succeeding next time.”

Just over two weeks from now will be the anniversary of the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, during which thousands of Mr. Trump’s supporters stormed Congress in a bid to stop legislators from confirming Joe Biden’s presidential victory. A congressional committee is now in the midst of investigating the day’s events.

The generals point to signs of politicization within the military. A large number of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, for instance, are current or former members of the armed forces. And the head of Oklahoma’s National Guard recently disobeyed a presidential order to ensure his troops were all vaccinated against COVID-19.

It is possible that the military will break into pro- and anti-Trump camps, leading to civil war, the generals argue. Enemy countries might take advantage of this chaos to launch attacks.

“In a contested election, with loyalties split, some might follow orders from the rightful commander-in-chief, while others might follow the Trumpian loser. Arms might not be secured depending on who was overseeing them. Under such a scenario, it is not outlandish to say a military breakdown could lead to civil war,” they write. “In this context, with our military hobbled and divided, U.S. security would be crippled. Any one of our enemies could take advantage by launching an all-out assault on our assets or our allies.”

The generals call for several actions to blunt the possibility of a coup. One is for political leaders and law enforcement officials to hold to account the politicians who stoked the falsehood that Mr. Trump actually won the 2020 election. Another is for the military to perform a review of the chain of command with service members, to ensure they would not follow illegal orders. A third is for the military to ferret out mutineers and guard against insurrectionists disseminating propaganda within the ranks.

“The military and lawmakers have been gifted hindsight to prevent another insurrection from happening in 2024 – but they will succeed only if they take decisive action now,” the generals write.

Mr. Eaton, who spent 34 years in the military, including a stint running U.S. operations to train the Iraqi military, is an adviser to VoteVets, a liberal political action committee. Mr. Taguba helped expose the torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops at the Abu Ghraib prison. Mr. Anderson previously worked as the army’s head of logistics at the Pentagon.

The congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot released a string of text messages last week that show Mr. Trump and his advisers were well aware of how violent the attack was as it unfolded. The messages were sent to Mark Meadows, who was then Mr. Trump’s chief of staff. In them, Republican legislators, Fox News hosts and one of Mr. Trump’s own sons, Donald Jr., plead for Mr. Trump to call off the rioters.

The committee found Mr. Meadows in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer its questions. The Department of Justice must now decide whether to charge him. Prosecutors have already charged Steve Bannon, a former Trump adviser, for disobeying the committee’s summons to testify.

At the state level, Republican officials are working to take control of election machinery, raising the prospect that they could install losing candidates by throwing out future Democratic electoral victories.

In Georgia, for instance, the legislature has given a Republican-run commission the ability to remove officials who run elections. Arizona legislators are debating a bill that would allow them to overturn a presidential election result in the state. In Pennsylvania, Republicans are trying to change the role of the official who oversees elections in the state from an appointed to an elected position.

In several states, Mr. Trump’s allies are aiming to defeat Republican officials who respected Mr. Biden’s presidential victory, in an effort to replace them with candidates who say the election should have been overturned.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.