He fired his defence secretary, installed a conspiracy-minded loyalist as chief counsel at an intelligence agency, and tapped a retired army colonel who backed martial law on the Mexican border for a top Pentagon job.
And all this within days of being declared the loser of a presidential election — a result Donald Trump has declared fraudulent.
“If we saw this in any other country, a president refusing to accept the results and then firing the secretary of defence, you could imagine [journalists] writing that this is an attempted coup,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former senior state department official.
Mr Trump’s decision to overhaul the senior ranks of the defence and parts of the intelligence establishment — including sacking defence secretary Mark Esper — in the immediate aftermath of his failed re-election campaign has gripped Washington’s political classes.
The reshuffle has sparked concern that the norm-bending president could well shatter the most sacred of democratic standards: the peaceful transfer of power. Yet many believe Mr Trump’s post-election skulduggery is for more pedestrian reasons, such as an eleventh-hour change in military posture overseas.
“The firing of Secretary Esper is most worrisome as it removes a man who has resisted the effort to misuse and abuse our military for political purposes,” said William Cohen, a former defence secretary under Bill Clinton. “Installing functionaries who are likely to be supplicants for the remainder of his term should be of concern to all who worry about national security issues.”
To be sure, Mr Trump has not violated any laws. The 18th-century US constitution and decades-old legal reforms make the formal certification of a new president a slow and complicated process, which means a sitting commander-in-chief has free rein to overhaul the government as they see fit for almost three months after election day.
“We do have to remember that the election is not certified,” Ms Slaughter told the FT Global Boardroom conference on Wednesday. “So when [Senate Republican majority leader] Mitch McConnell says Trump is completely within his rights, he is right.”
But there are also signs Mr Trump has targeted the process of confirming the election itself. Bill Barr, US attorney-general, a chief enforcer of Mr Trump’s more controversial legal forays, has authorised federal prosecutors to investigate possible election crimes before the results are certified.
And the president may not yet be done with his overhaul. Washington is awash with talk that the directors of the CIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation — two of the few high-level positions that normally carry over from one administration to another — are next on the chopping block.
“There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration,” secretary of state Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday, a line delivered with a half smile that still sent shivers down the spine of many Democrats in Washington.
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Even Mr Trump’s harshest critics note, however, that there are significant safeguards to prevent any attempt by the president to subvert the constitutional order — most importantly the uniformed military, where officers have made clear their loyalty is to the nation rather than the current president.
General Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has sent not-so-subtle messages to Congress that he is prepared to stand up to any extrajudicial measures taken by Mr Trump.
Gen Milley has made those protestations after coming under intense criticism over the summer for joining the US president while in uniform on a walk to a church near the White House after peaceful protesters had been dispersed with tear gas. The general apologised over the incident.
Other Pentagon analysts believe there are probably more mundane reasons for Mr Trump’s latest manoeuvres.
Some think the president is merely being vindictive against officials deemed insufficiently loyal. Others reckon Mr Trump wants to remove obstacles to ordering the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. That view has been bolstered by the hiring of Douglas Macgregor, a retired army colonel who backs withdrawing from the country, as a Pentagon adviser.
Other figures have privately raised concerns that the president might be considering military action, such as giving Israel the green light to attack Iran, and is seeking to remove officials likely to object.
James Stavridis, a retired US admiral who served as the Supreme Allied Commander at Nato and remains in regular contact with Pentagon officials, was doubtful the moves were related to Iran.
“I would say the firings at the Pentagon are a pretty good example of ‘Occam’s razor’, that the simple explanation is the best,” Mr Stavridis said. “He was frustrated with the senior leadership who he felt were insufficiently supportive in the months before the election and that led to an act of vengeance and petulance.”
For most of his tenure, Mr Esper was referred to as “Yesper”, reflecting the view that he was unwilling to stand up to Mr Trump. But he fell out of favour with the president over the summer when he opposed Mr Trump’s push to invoke the Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty soldiers in American streets to respond to anti-racism protests.
Ms Slaughter said many retired defence secretaries, including Jim Mattis, and former chairmen of the joint chiefs had sent the strongest message they could that officers’ loyalty lies with the constitution.
“If Donald Trump disobeys the constitution, or really subverts constitutional norms, they will not respond [to his orders],” Ms Slaughter added.
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