In an extraordinary rebuke of US President Donald Trump, all 10 living former secretaries of defence cautioned on Sunday against any move to involve the military in pursuing claims of election fraud, arguing that it would take the country into “dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory”.
The 10 men, both Democrats and Republicans, signed on to an opinion article published in The Washington Post newspaper that implicitly questioned Trump’s willingness to follow his constitutional duty to peacefully relinquish power on January 20.
They included Mark Esper who was fired by Trump in November as well as another Trump defense chief James Mattis.
The group said the time had come to accept that the Republican president had lost the November 3 election and that Biden would succeed him on January 20.
“Our elections have occurred. Recounts and audits have been conducted. Appropriate challenges have been addressed by the courts. Governors have certified the results. And the electoral college has voted,” they said in the opinion piece. “The time for questioning the results has passed.”
And it is now time to formally certify the Electoral College votes, they said.
The former Pentagon chiefs warned against use of the military in any effort to change the outcome.
“Efforts to involve the US armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory,” they wrote. “Civilian and military officials who direct or carry out such measures would be accountable, including potentially facing criminal penalties, for the grave consequences of their actions on our republic.”
A number of senior military officers, including General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said publicly in recent weeks that the military has no role in determining the outcome of US elections and that their loyalty is to the constitution, not to an individual leader or a political party.
David Tafuri, a lawyer and adviser to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, called the op-ed an “extraordinary development”.
“The fact that they all got together and did this suggests that they are worried Trump is putting pressure on the Pentagon and may try to use the military,” Tafuri told Al Jazeera. “This falls very much outside the tradition of keeping the US military out of domestic affairs and out of engaging in an act that could overturn a lawful US election.”
The 10 former Pentagon leaders also warned in their Post article of the dangers of impeding a full and smooth transition at Defense Department prior to Inauguration Day as part of a transfer to power to Biden. The president-elect in late December complained of efforts by Trump-appointed Pentagon officials to obstruct the transition.
Biden said political appointees at the Pentagon, which Trump has packed with loyalists since the election, have refused to provide a “clear picture” on troop posture or budgeting.
Without mentioning a specific example, the former defence secretaries wrote that transfers of power “often occur at times of international uncertainty about US national security policy and posture,” adding: “They can be a moment when the nation is vulnerable to actions by adversaries seeking to take advantage of the situation.”
Tensions with Iran represent just such a moment. Sunday marked one year since the US killing of Qassem Soleimani, the top Iranian general; Iran has pledged to avenge the killing and US officials said in recent days that they are on heightened alert for a potential Iranian attack on US forces or interests in the Middle East.
In a further sign of US-Iranian tension, the acting Secretary of Defense, Christopher Miller, announced on evening that he has changed his mind about sending the Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz, home from the Middle East and instead will keep the vessel on duty. Just last week, Miller announced that he was sending the Nimitz home, a decision that had been opposed by senior military officers.
In reversing himself, Miller cited “recent threats issued by Iranian leaders against President Trump and other US government officials”. He did not elaborate, and the Pentagon did not respond to questions.
In addition to Mattis and Esper, the opinion article in the Post was signed by Dick Cheney, William Perry, Donald Rumsfeld, William Cohen, Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter.
The Post reported that the idea for writing the opinion piece began with a conversation between Cheney and Eric Edelman, a retired ambassador and former senior Pentagon official, about how Trump might seek to use the military in the coming days.