Trump Mass Firings at Pentagon: Retribution or Preparations for a Coup?

Interview with Mel Goodman, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, conducted by Scott Harris

In the days following Donald Trump’s election loss to former Vice President Joe Biden, he refused to concede, saying the election was rigged and then fired or replaced four of the top officials at the Pentagon – Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Retired Navy Vice Adm. Joseph Kernan, undersecretary of defense for intelligence; Jen Stewart, chief of staff to the secretary of defense and Jon Rood, undersecretary of defense for policy, who resigned in February 2020. The president, has in the parlance of the military, “decapitated” the nation’s civilian military leadership. In their place, he has appointed a group of political sycophants who have neither the stature nor the experience to undertake these jobs.

While many observers dismiss the idea that the mass firings are preparations for a coup, there’s speculation that Trump’s action may be an act of retribution for what he viewed as disloyalty. One point of open conflict between the president and former Secretary Esper was his opposition to using the Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty U.S. troops to American cities where mass racial justice protests were taking place in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd.

There’s also concern that the firings may have come in advance of a possible move by Trump to launch attacks on Iran or Venezuela before he leaves office in January. The New York Times reported on Nov. 16 that the president asked senior advisers about what options he had to take action against Iran’s main nuclear site. The next day the Trump regime announced a major troop withdrawal from both Afghanistan and Iraq. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Melvin Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, who had a 42-year government career at the CIA and State Department. Here, Goodman speculates about the possible goal of President Trump’s mass Pentagon firings and the dangerous period ahead before he leaves office on Jan. 20.

MEL GOODMAN: If I were the analyst for Country X, where a president has just lost an election and is committed to overturning the results of the election — then conducts a purge, not only of the ministry of defense, but of the entire national security community because it involves the secretary of defense, the number one deputy secretary for policy, the deputy secretary for intelligence at the ministry of defense, sycophants being introduced to all of these positions while the attorney general at the Department of Justice calls on his election crimes division to look for examples of fraud in the election when special prosecutors have already said, there’s no evidence of fraud whatsoever, and actually the head of the cybersecurity unit of the Department of Homeland Security has said, “this is the most secure election we’ve ever had,” and two days later, he and his deputy are fired along with the assistant secretary of Homeland Security for international relations — I’d be writing this up, saying there’s great probability of a coup about to take place, that this president has decided to seize the reins of government and to ignore the results of the election. And I would write this up for senior policymakers and probably for the president of my country.

So again, I’m not predicting a coup and it’s hard for me to wrap my brain around the idea of a military coup in this country. Our own Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (Mark) Milley has already said the oath that we swear to as a military officer is not to any king or queen or despot, it’s to the Constitution of the United States.

And we know that the (former) Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has been fighting these premature withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan of the very small forces that are left there, which is extremely important in terms of force protection when you have such a small number of forces in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. A few days after he writes that classified memo, he’s fired. Clearly the reasons we’re being given for this are unsatisfactory. You know, the New York Times was saying that the Trump administration was just trying to put people into position so they could beef up their resumes for jobs following the inauguration of Joe Biden. Why, I don’t think Trump gives a damn about the people who work around him. He’s not trying to beef up anyone’s resumes.

SCOTT HARRIS: Before Donald Trump leaves office, if there isn’t a coup d’etat, there are about 60 days left. What are your major concerns here over these next two months, given that there’s some speculation that he might try to create a firestorm by starting a war with Iran, maybe Venezuela, rocking relations with other nations around the world as he leaves office. What, what are some of your top concerns?

MEL GOODMAN: My real problem, I think the bottom line in all this is Trump has done so much damage to our norms of democracy that it’s going to lead to increased cynicism within the populace toward the government, toward the Biden administration. There are too many Republicans who think that Biden is not a legitimate president and (they) will not support a legitimate president. Why should young men and women sign up for military missions abroad on behalf of presidential decision-making when they don’t accept the credibility of this particular president? So tremendous damage is being done to U.S. governance and U.S. democracy. And that’s my major concern.

SCOTT HARRIS: What is your response to the outright complicity or silence of many Republican legislators in the House and Senate when Donald Trump refuses to recognize his loss in the election and refuses this customary transition planning?

MEL GOODMAN: To me, you’ve got a group of invertebrates who are now in commanding positions with what we used to think of as the Republican party. As far as I’m concerned right now, the Republican party doesn’t exist. Until it gets rebuilt, it’s going to be very difficult for Biden to work with a Senate that’s led by Mitch McConnell. And I don’t expect these two run-off elections in Georgia will lead to a 50-50 Senate. So McConnell will still wield tremendous power. And I think he will make the same commitment to his caucus that he made in 2009 when he said “Our major function is to make sure that Obama is a one-term president.” They’re going to do the same thing to Joe Biden. And when you add the element of a vice president who’s a person of color and given the animus and racism of the Republican party, I think we’re in for some very rough sledding.

Goodman is also an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and author. His most recent book is titled, “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump.”

For more information, visit the Center for International Policy at and Mel Goodman’s CIP webpage at

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