News, Jazz, NPR
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Retired general warns the U.S. military could back a coup after the 2024 election

Retired two-star U.S. General Paul Eaton co-authored a recent op-ed about the fear that a coup could succeed after the 2024 elections.
Brent Stirton
/
Getty Images
Retired two-star U.S. General Paul Eaton co-authored a recent op-ed about the fear that a coup could succeed after the 2024 elections.

As the anniversary of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol approaches, three retired U.S. generals have warned that another insurrection could occur after the 2024 presidential election and that the military could support it.

The generals – Paul Eaton, Antonio Taguba and Steven Anderson – made their case in a recent Washington Post op-ed. "In short: We are chilled to our bones at the thought of a coup succeeding next time," they wrote.

Paul Eaton, a retired U.S. Army major general and a senior adviser to VoteVets, spoke with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly earlier this week.

Below are the highlights of the conversation.

Edited for brevity and clarity.

How could a coup play out in 2024?

The real question is does everybody understand who the duly elected president is? If that is not a clear-cut understanding, that can infect the rank and file or at any level in the U.S. military.

Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., read the final certification of Electoral College votes cast in November's presidential election, hours after a pro-Trump mob broke into the U.S. Capitol.
Pool / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., read the final certification of Electoral College votes cast in November's presidential election, hours after a pro-Trump mob broke into the U.S. Capitol.

And we saw it when 124 retired generals and admirals signed a letter contesting the 2020 election. We're concerned about that. And we're interested in seeing mitigating measures applied to make sure that our military is better prepared for a contested election, should that happen in 2024.

How worried is he on a scale of 1 to 10?

I see it as low probability, high impact. I hesitate to put a number on it, but it's an eventuality that we need to prepare for. In the military, we do a lot of war-gaming to ferret out what might happen. You may have heard of the Transition Integrity Project that occurred about six months before the last election. We played four scenarios. And what we did not play is a U.S. military compromised — not to the degree that the United States is compromised today, as far as 39% of the Republican Party refusing to accept President Biden as president — but a compromise nonetheless. So, we advocate that that particular scenario needs to be addressed in a future war game held well in advance of 2024.

A pro-Trump mob breaks into the U.S. Capitol on January 06, 2021 as Congress held a joint session to ratify President-elect Joe Biden's 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump.
Win McNamee / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
A pro-Trump mob breaks into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as Congress held a joint session to ratify President-elect Joe Biden's 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump.

Can the current Pentagon leadership handle it?

I'm a huge fan of Secretary [of Defense Lloyd] Austin, a huge fan of the team that he has put together and the uniformed military under [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark] Milley. They're just superb. And I am confident that the best men and women in the U.S. and in our military will be outstanding. I just don't want the doubt that has compromised or infected the greater population of the United States to infect our military.

What should the military do?

I had a conversation with somebody about my age, and we were talking about civics lessons, liberal arts education and the development of the philosophical underpinnings of the U.S. Constitution. And I believe that bears a reteach to make sure that each and every 18-year-old American truly understands the Constitution of the United States, how we got there, how we developed it and what our forefathers wanted us to understand years down the road. That's an important bit of education that I think that we need to readdress.

I believe that we need to war-game the possibility of a problem and what we are going to do. The fact that we were caught completely unprepared — militarily, and from a policing function — on Jan. 6 is incomprehensible to me. Civilian control of the military is sacrosanct in the U.S. and that is a position that we need to reinforce.

A protester screams "Freedom" inside the Senate chamber after the U.S. Capitol was breached by a mob on January 06, 2021. Retired U.S. General Paul Eaton suggests better civics lessons could help prevent another insurrection.
Win McNamee / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
A protester screams "Freedom" inside the Senate chamber after the U.S. Capitol was breached by a mob on Jan. 6, 2021. Retired U.S. Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton suggests better civics lessons could help prevent another insurrection.

Are civics lessons 'weak tea' to stave off an insurrection?

A component of that — unsaid — is that we all know each other very well. And if there is any doubt in the loyalty and the willingness to follow the Oath of the United States, the support and defend part of the U.S. Constitution, then those folks need to be identified and addressed in some capacity. When you talk to a squad leader, a staff sergeant, a nine-man rifle squad, he knows his men and women very, very well.

Editor's note: The headline on this article has been changed to accurately reflect General Eaton's point that some in the military could support a coup – not that they would lead it.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

WUSF 89.7 depends on donors for the funding it takes to provide you the most trusted source of news and information here in town, across our state, and around the world. Support WUSF now by giving monthly, or make a one-time donation online.