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“The President Threw Us Under the Bus”: Embedding With Pentagon Leadership in Trump’s Chaotic Last Week

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“The D.C. mayor finally said, ‘Okay, I need more,’” Kash Patel would tell me. “Then the Capitol police—a federal agency and the Secret Service made the request. We can support them under Title 10, Title 32 authorities for [the] National Guard. So [they] collectively started making requests, and we did it. And then we just went to work.”

What did Miller think of the criticism that the Pentagon had dragged its feet in sending in the cavalry? He bristled. “Oh, that is complete horseshit. I gotta tell you, I cannot wait to go to the Hill and have those conversations with senators and representatives.” While Miller confessed that he hadn’t yet emotionally processed the day’s events, he said, “I know when something doesn’t smell right, and I know when we’re covering our asses. Been there. I know for an absolute fact that historians are going to look…at the actions that we did on that day and go, ‘Those people had their game together.’”

Miller and Patel both insisted, in separate conversations, that they neither tried nor needed to contact the president on January 6; they had already gotten approval to deploy forces. However, another senior defense official remembered things quite differently, “They couldn’t get through. They tried to call him”—meaning the president.The implication: Either Trump was shell-shocked, effectively abdicating his role as commander in chief, or he was deliberately stiff-arming some of his top officials because he was, in effect, siding with the insurrectionists and their cause of denying Biden’s victory.

As for Mike Pence, Miller disputed reports that the vice president was calling the shots or was the one who sent in the Guard. The SECDEF stated that he did speak with Pence—then in a secure location on the Hill—and provided a situation report. Referring to the Electoral College certification that had been paused when the mob stormed the building, Miller recalled Pence telling him, “We got to get this thing going again,” to which the defense secretary replied, “Roger. We’re moving.” Patel, for his part, said that those assembled in Miller’s office also spoke with congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Mitch McConnell. “We were called upon to do our job, and we executed because we had the reps and sets built into our process to get the troops where they were requested, to put up a fence, to secure a perimeter, and to help clear the Capitol compound. I mean, that’s just what we do.” Others, of course, believe reinforcements came far too late that day, possibly serving to embolden extremists for years to come.

Ezra Cohen, another of Miller’s top confidants, believes that his colleagues’ words and deeds may be well and good, but are beside the point: “The president threw us under the bus. And when I say ‘us,’ I don’t mean only us political appointees or only us Republicans. He threw America under the bus. He caused a lot of damage to the fabric of this country. Did he go and storm the Capitol himself? No. But he, I believe, had an opportunity to tamp things down and he chose not to. And that’s really the fatal flaw. I mean, he’s in charge. And when you’re in charge, you’re responsible for what goes wrong.”

Miller agreed, and I raced to Washington for COVID testing so I could join his entourage. Like many others, I had been worried that Donald Trump, using domestic havoc or a foreign military skirmish as pretext, might move to delay Biden’s inauguration—or actually attempt a putsch by invoking martial law. Having worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and later as an attorney for the CIA (before I began my career in journalism), I understood the national security wiring diagram. And I recognized that in the absence of the vice president invoking the 25th Amendment, Secretary Miller was the one person standing between an unhinged president and a full-scale national meltdown.

While waiting to begin my reporting in earnest, I sought a gut check from a senior national security official. “If I was writing your headline,” he advised me, “it would be, ‘Who really is the secretary of defense? Chris Miller? Kash Patel? Ezra Cohen? Or [Chairman] Mark Milley?’ I don’t know how to answer that, frankly. The scuttlebutt is that Miller is the good guy who’s the frontman and it’s Cohen and Patel who are calling all the shots.”

What happened on January 6 made the assignment feel even more pressing. With the president missing in action, who was protecting the republic? Was Miller—with his command of America’s troops and nukes—still receiving orders from the vestigial president? And what to make of Cohen and Patel, who in some corners of the Pentagon were referred to as zampolit, a term the Soviets used to describe political enforcers who were deployed to strategic locations to ensure loyalty to the Kremlin?

As the dust from the insurrection was still settling and as talk of impeachment gained momentum, I tagged along with Miller and his team as they went about their last days in office (Tuesday, January 12, to Tuesday, January 19). In addition, it was agreed that virtually everything would be on the record and on tape: Miller, Cohen, and Patel wore lapel microphones during our conversations.

Chris Miller—55, with a shock of white hair—neither acts nor speaks like a prototypical cabinet member. First off, he had commanded an airborne Special Forces battalion and fought in some of the earliest combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Three current officials I consulted, who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject matter, confirmed that Miller had also served with Task Force Orange, a military intelligence unit so secret that its name is rarely uttered.)

Miller was a little-known careerist who had labored in relative obscurity for decades. That is, until November 9, 2020, when President Trump tweeted: “I am pleased to announce that Christopher C. Miller, the highly respected Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (unanimously confirmed by the Senate), will be Acting Secretary of Defense, effective immediately.” Trump added, “Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service.” (Secretary Esper’s dismissal had been brewing since the summer, when he issued a mealy-mouthed apology for participating in a June 1 stroll with the president across Lafayette Square. Upon his departure, three top aides left with him.)

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