by Matt Taibbi
The fix is in. To “protect democracy,” democracy is already being canceled. We just haven’t admitted the implications of this to ourselves yet.
On Sunday, January 14th, NBC News ran an eye-catching story: “Fears grow that Trump will use the military in ‘dictatorial ways’ if he returns to the White House.” It described “a loose-knit network of public interest groups and lawmakers” that is “quietly” making plans to “foil any efforts to expand presidential power” on the part of Donald Trump.
The piece quoted an array of former high-ranking officials, all insisting Trump will misuse the Department of Defense to execute civilian political aims. Since Joe Biden’s team “leaked” a strategy memo in late December listing “Trump is an existential threat to democracy” as Campaign 2024’s central talking point, surrogates have worked overtime to insert existential or democracy in quotes. This was no different:
“We’re about 30 seconds away from the Armageddon clock when it comes to democracy,” said Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, adding that Trump is “a clear and present danger to our democracy.” Skye Perryman of Democracy Forward, one of the advocacy groups organizing the “loose” coalition, said, “We believe this is an existential moment for American democracy.” Declared former CIA and defense chief Leon Panetta: “Like any good dictator, he’s going to try to use the military to basically perform his will.”
Former Acting Assistant Attorney General for National Security at the U.S. Department of Justice and current visiting Georgetown law professor Mary McCord was one of the few coalition participants quoted by name. She said:
We’re already starting to put together a team to think through the most damaging types of things that he [Trump] might do so that we’re ready to bring lawsuits if we have to.
The group was formed by at least two organizations that have been hyperactive in filing lawsuits against Trump and Trump-related figures over the years: the aforementioned Democracy Forward, chaired by former Perkins Coie and Hillary Clinton campaign attorney Marc Elias, and Protect Democracy, a ubiquitous non-profit run by a phalanx of former Obama administration lawyers like Ian Bassin, and funded at least in part by LinkedIn magnate Reid Hoffman.
The article implied a future Trump presidency will necessitate new forms of external control over the military. It cited Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal’s bill to “clarify” the Insurrection Act, a 1792 law that empowers the president to deploy the military to quell domestic rebellion. Blumenthal’s act would add a requirement that Congress or courts ratify presidential decisions to deploy the military at home, seeking essentially to attach a congressional breathalyzer to the presidential steering wheel.
NBC’s quotes from former high-ranking defense and intelligence officials about possible preemptive mutiny were interesting on their own. However, the really striking twist was that we’d read the story before.
For over a year, the Biden administration and its surrogates have dropped hint after hint that the plan for winning in 2024 — against Donald Trump or anyone else — might involve something other than voting. Lawsuits in multiple states have been filed to remove Trump from the ballot; primaries have been canceled or invalidated; an ominous Washington Post editorial by Robert Kagan, husband to senior State official Victoria Nuland, read like an APB to assassins to head off an “inevitable” Trump dictatorship; and on January 11th of this year, leaders of a third party group called “No Labels” sent an amazing letter to the Department of Justice, complaining of a “conspiracy” to stop alternative votes.
Authored by former NAACP director Ben Chavis, former Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, former North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, and former Assistant U.S. Attorney and Iran-Contra Special Counsel Dan Webb, the No Labels letter described a meeting of multiple advocacy groups aligned with the Democratic party. In the 80-minute confab, audio of which was obtained by Semafor, a dire warning was issued to anyone considering a third-party run:
Through every channel we have, to their donors, their friends, the press, everyone — everyone — should send the message: If you have one fingernail clipping of a skeleton in your closet, we will find it… If you think you were vetted when you ran for governor, you’re insane. That was nothing. We are going to come at you with every gun we can possibly find. We did not do that with Jill Stein or Gary Johnson, we should have, and we will not make that mistake again.
The Semafor piece offered a rare glimpse into the Zoom-politics culture that’s dominated Washington since the arrival of Covid-19. If this is how Beltway insiders talk about how to keep Joe Lieberman or Ben Chavis out of politics, imagine what they say about Trump?
We don’t have to imagine. Three and a half years ago, in June and July of 2020, an almost exactly similar series of features to the recent NBC story began appearing in media, describing another “loose network” of “bipartisan officials,” also meeting “quietly” to war-game scenarios in case “Trump loses and insists he won,” as the Washington Post put it.
That group, which called itself the Transition Integrity Project (TIP), involved roughly 100 former officials, think-tankers, and journalists who gathered to “wargame” contested election scenarios. The “loose” network included big names like former Michigan governor and current Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, and former Hillary Clinton campaign chief John Podesta, who in his current role as special advisor to President Joe Biden overseeing the handout of roughly $370 billion in “clean energy” investments is one of the most powerful people in Washington.
The TIP was hyped like the rollout of a blockbuster horror flick: In a second Trump Term, No One Will Hear You Scream… Stories in NPR, the Financial Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post and over a dozen other major outlets outlined apocalyptic predictions about Trump’s unwillingness to leave office, and how this would likely result in mass unrest, even bloodshed. A typical quote was from TIP co-founder, Georgetown law professor, and former Pentagon official Rosa Brooks, who told the Boston Globe that every one of the group’s simulations ended in chaos and violence, because “the law is… almost helpless against a president who’s willing to ignore it.”
Podesta played Joe Biden in one TIP simulation, and in one round refused to accede to a “clear Trump win,” threatening instead to seize a bloc of West Coast states including California (absurdly dubbed “Cascadia”) and secede. Podesta’s “frankly ridiculous move,” as one TIP participant described it, was so over the top that a player leaked it to media writer Ben Smith of the New York Times.
The latter in Timesian fashion stuck the seeming front-page tale near the bottom of an otherwise breezy August 2nd story titled, called “How The Media Could Get the Election Story Wrong”:
A group of former top government officials called the Transition Integrity Project actually gamed four possible scenarios, including one that doesn’t look that different from 2016: a big popular win for Mr. Biden, and a narrow electoral defeat… They cast John Podesta, who was Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, in the role of Mr. Biden. They expected him, when the votes came in, to concede…
But Mr. Podesta… shocked the organizers… he persuaded the governors of Wisconsin and Michigan to send pro-Biden electors to the Electoral College. In that scenario, California, Oregon, and Washington then threatened to secede from the United States if Mr. Trump took office…
News that Hillary Clinton’s former campaign chief rejected a legal election result, even in a hypothetical simulation, was obvious catnip to conservative media, which took about ten minutes to repackage Smith’s story using the same alarmist headline format marking earlier TIP write-ups. Breitbart published “Democrats’ ‘War Game’ for Election Includes West Coast Secession, Possible Civil War,” and a cascade of further red-state freakouts seemed inevitable.
“At that point,” says Nils Gilman, COO and EVP of Programs at the Berggruen Institute think tank, who served alongside Brooks as TIP’s other co-founder, “we decided we needed to be out about having run this exercise, to prevent the allegation that this was a ‘shadowy cabal’ — not that that narrative didn’t take hold anyways.”
The final TIP report was released the next day, August 3rd, 2020. Titled “Preventing a Disrupted Presidential Election and Transition,” the full text was, as any person attempting an objective read will grasp, sensational.
The Podesta episode was worse than reported, with the secession proposal coming on “advice from President Obama,” used as leverage to a) secure statehood for Washington, DC and Puerto Rico b) divide California into five states to increase its Senate representation, and c) “eliminate the Electoral College,” among other things. TIP authors also warned Trump’s behavior could “push other actors, including, potentially, some in the Democratic Party, to similarly engage in practices that depart from traditional rule of law norms, out of perceived self-defense.”
More tellingly, there were multiple passages on the subject of abiding by and/or trusting in the law, and how this can be a weakness. TIP authors concluded that “as an incumbent unbounded by norms, President Trump has a huge advantage” in the upcoming election, and chided participants that “planners need to take seriously the notion that this may well be a street fight, not a legal battle.” They added the key observation that “a reliance on elites observing norms are [sic] not the answer here.”