President Trump's top military man has just been delivered an extraordinary request by two senior military staffers in a worst case scenario following the upcoming US election.
An open letter, published by online US military news site Defense One, is addressed to General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and paints a stark picture of what the authors believe could emerge following the upcoming US election.
"As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, you are well aware of your duties in ordinary times: to serve as principal military advisor to the president of the United States, and to transmit the lawful orders of the president and Secretary of Defense to combatant commanders," the letter reads.
"In ordinary times, these duties are entirely consistent with your oath to 'support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…'
"We do not live in ordinary times. The president of the United States is actively subverting our electoral system, threatening to remain in office in defiance of our Constitution. In a few months' time, you may have to choose between defying a lawless president or betraying your Constitutional oath. We write to assist you in thinking clearly about that choice.
"If Donald Trump refuses to leave office at the expiration of his constitutional term, the United States military must remove him by force, and you must give that order."
Written by, John Nagl, a retired army officer and veteran of both Iraq wars and Paul Yingling, a retired lieutenant colonel who served three tours in Iraq, another in Bosnia, and a fifth in Operation Desert Storm, the letter gives voice to concerns that the next presidential election will become its most contentious in history.
The authors claim Trump is facing defeat in the November election and has engaged in a "systemic disinformation" campaign, along with other actions, that could see him throw doubt on results or refuse to leave office on 20 January 2021.
It comes amid allegations of foreign interference in the electoral process from Russia, China and Iran. Trump has previously been dismissive of claims of continued meddlings by Moscow. The White House, however, says it has serious concerns about Beijing.
Meanwhile, Trump has been actively campaigning against the postal vote system, calling it easily manipulated and a risk to the validity of the nation's choice.
WHO IS GENERAL MILLEY?
The White House has experienced a revolving door of leaders in many departments since Trump's election in 2016.
General Milley was nominated to take the Joint Chiefs of Staff job by Trump in 2018. He stepped in to lead the Pentagon upon the retirement of his predecessor in September last year.
Since then, it's been a rocky ride.
On June 1, General Milley – wearing combat fatigues – walked behind Trump as National Guard, police and other unidentified units forcibly removed peaceful protesters in Washington DC's Lafayette Square for a presidential photo-opportunity in front of a nearby church.
General Milley has since apologised for appearing in the President's photo call, but also refused to testify to US Congress about the role his forces have played during the unrest spanning the nation.
"I should not have been there," Milley told the National Defense University in a pre-recorded video address after the church event that sparked national outrage.
"My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics."
RMIT University Global Studies Center research fellow Dr Emma Schwartz said for some, there is a concern around what will happen on January 20 - when the inauguration of a potentially new President is due to take place.
"They are worried that … on the 20th of January 2021, when he is supposed to, according to the Constitution, hand over power to the person who's won the election, that he will refuse to do so. He'll just kind of hold himself up in the Oval Office and refuse to leave. And I think people are genuinely worried about that scenario."
However the US Constitution is clear: Power must be handed to the election winner at 11am on January 20.
"Trump has about three months from the third of November in that transition period until the 20th of January to do who knows what to lay the groundwork for holding on to power," she says.
WHAT DO POLLS SAY?
Recent polls show Joe Biden has had around a 10 per cent lead over Donald Trump, with the White House's handling of the coronavirus pandemic - which has seen the world's largest case numbers and deaths - eroding Trump's approval rating even among his Republican supporters.
Against this backdrop, Trump's social media has been filled with claims about the election being "rigged" leading some to suggest he could dipsute the validity of the vote.
He's complained bitterly about "biased" news media. He's attacked social media for favouring his opponents. He's warned – without evidence – of massive potential voter fraud.
All up, he warns November 3, 2020, will be "the greatest election disaster in history".
"It'll be fixed. It will be rigged. People ought to get smart."
The open letter's authors have drawn parallels between Mr Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin's use of "little green men". In one case, his troops – not wearing any identifying badges or carrying any flag – invaded Crimea. They've since been fighting in Ukraine the same way, relying on uncertainty and implausible deniability as a political smokescreen.
"Due to a dangerous confluence of circumstances, the once-unthinkable scenario of authoritarian rule in the United States is now a very real possibility," the letter declares.
The coronavirus pandemic, ensuing recession and Black Lives Matter protests have created a unique cocktail of anger and disenfranchisement that exploded across the US earlier this year following the death of George Floyd.
A recent report from Politico highlighted a "perfect storm" of eight factors including dislocated voters, foreign intereference and the situation in the White House that could be explosive in the upcoming vote.
Amid these fears, 67 experts have "war gamed" how a deeply divisive election campaign could play out.
They followed established patterns of behaviour and used campaign tactics that are already being deployed.
"Out of this war game, we witnessed role-players exercise power nakedly," retired Major General Paul Eaton observed. The resulting report was equally grim.
"We assess with a high degree of likelihood that November's elections will be marked by a chaotic legal and political landscape," says the Georgetown University's Transition Integrity Project, which organised the "war games".
"The winner may not, and we assess likely will not, be known on 'election night' as officials count mail-in ballots," the report says.
"This period of uncertainty provides opportunities for an unscrupulous candidate to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the process and to set up an unprecedented assault on the outcome."
One study found nearly one out of four voters – 22 per cent of Democrats and 21 per cent of Republicans – said some amount of "violence" would be justified if the candidate they oppose wins the White House. Some 29 per cent said violence would be justified if Trump loses the election but refused to leave.
Under such circumstances, the fate of the world's most powerful democracy would be at stake.
"Throughout our history, Americans have laid down their lives so that this form of government may endure," the open letter to General Milley reads.
"Continuing the unfinished work for which these heroes fell now falls to you.
"In the Constitutional crisis described above, your duty is to give unambiguous orders directing US military forces to support the constitutional transfer of power. Should you remain silent, you will be complicit in a coup d'état."