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Former US Defense Secretary: The attack on the Capitol was a ‘coup’

Monday 18 January 2021

Chuck Hagel, a Republican senator for 12 years and Barack Obama’s defence chief, was speaking to this week’s Tortoise Slow Newscast

Former US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has described the invasion of the US Capitol by Trump-supporting rioters as a “coup” inspired by the departing president.

Speaking to the Tortoise Slow Newscast, Secretary Hagel, who was a Republican senator for 12 years but later served as Barack Obama’s Pentagon chief, explicitly blamed President Trump for inciting the violence which left a police officer dead and more than 70 charged with criminal offences.

Hagel was part of an unprecedented intervention by all ten living former defense secretaries, who put their name to a letter that ran in the Washington Post three days before the shocking scenes on Capitol Hill.

The letter explicitly warned military commanders that they could face criminal charges if they interfered in the aftermath of the election.

And the former Pentagon leaders – of both parties, dating all the way back to Dick Cheney in 1989 – also went public to remind current military leaders that they had sworn an oath to defend the Constitution, not a party or an individual.

Asked if he felt comfortable using the word “coup” to interpret what had happened at the Capitol after Trump’s inflammatory speech urging his supporters to “fight like hell”, Hagel told us: “Well, I think it’s an appropriate word. 

“I don’t think it overstates; I mean, especially now, as we are a few days away from what happened, we’re picking up intelligence, we’re picking up emails, we’re picking up a lot of things that we didn’t know on 6 January about what the intent was of these people. The intent was to overthrow the government.”

He added that Trump had been using the rhetoric of incitement for months: “As he said, months and months before an election, ‘If I lose this election, it is because it was stolen from me.’ It was because it was fraudulent. And he said many times before and after the election, ‘We need to take the country back.’

“Well, what does that mean to you? That’s a pretty clear indication. ‘We need to take the country back.’ That’s a coup. That’s a signal for a coup.”

Hagel revealed that the letter had first been drafted by senior defence officials from the George W. Bush administration, and that Cheney – Bush’s vice-president and architect of the invasion of Iraq and the War on Terror – was the first to see the letter and start the process of bringing all the living former defence chiefs together as one to put their names to it.

“We all agreed that this was an important statement to make, at a critical time in our country,” Hagel told Tortoise. 

“We were in a very dangerous environment in this country. when you look at what had been said by President Trump, even before the election, but after he lost the election.

“He said it was fraudulent. He said the election was stolen. He encouraged his supporters to go out and change it. He made phone calls, intimidating governors of states, threatening governors of states. There was talk in the White House, with the president, about declaring martial law in the United States, about using the Insurrection Act to bring the military in.

“He, the president, was talking about having military re-run the elections. This conversation was very disturbing and, judging from this president’s record the last four years, his erratic behaviour, his erratic conversations, we were all concerned that, leading up to 20 January, we may see violence in this country, we may see bloodshed. 

“And, unfortunately, that’s what we did see.” 

Hagel said he had watched at home as the events unfolded, and received disbelieving calls from political leaders around the world.

“It was horrifying to me as it was to, I think, every American citizen. What happened on 6 January has never happened in this country since the war of 1812. And that was a foreign enemy – that’s when the British invaded Washington and invaded the Capitol, invaded the White House.

“And so I was horrified. The damage that was being done. The destruction. The people who obviously died. The complete lack of respect for this country, for its laws, for its people, was astounding. We’ve never, ever seen anything like it.”

Trump has been impeached by the House and will face a trial in the Senate after he leaves office on Wednesday. A guilty verdict could see him banned from holding public office ever again, although 17 out of 50 Republican senators would have to join Democrats in finding him guilty.

However, Hagel said it was a necessary step. “Actions have consequences. Every one of us, regardless of his or her station in life, is accountable. The president of the United States certainly is accountable to the people in the United States.This isn’t an authoritarian government. This is not a dictatorship. Democracies are about accountabilities. That’s the only way democracy can work.”

Listen to the Slow Newscast in the Tortoise App today and on all major podcast platforms from Thursday.