This week’s warning to all ten living former US Defense Secretary that the military should not be used to determine an election is a staggering setback to President Donald Trump’s desire to stay in power.
The fact That this diverse group of Democrats and Republicans, including Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and former Trump Pentagon leaders James Mattis and Mark Esper, felt the need to speak out together, illustrates the danger of this moment.
Like that 10 made it clear in a statement for the Washington Post, the threats to the Constitution posed by Trump and his GOP allies in Congress are so serious that no one knows if he will try to get the armed forces to overthrow the elections.
« As former defense ministers … each of us swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution, » the group wrote. « We did not swear to any individual or party … Efforts to involve the US armed forces in electoral dispute resolution would lead us into dangerous, illegal and unconstitutional territory. » Indeed.
I asked Eric Edelman, Undersecretary of State for Defense in the George W. Bush administration, what exactly prompted the testimony.
It started with a conversation between him and Dick Cheney, he said, “and then it just snowed. We received all 10 within 48 hours over New Years and Day. Even if they do not agree on anything politically, they all agree on the norms and institutions of democracy. “
Their approval was based on concerns about what once seemed unthinkable. « We were all concerned about Trump’s unpredictability because we feared he might do something that could affect the military. We wanted to reiterate Milley’s position (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark) that the military does not participate in elections. «
This was particularly true, Edelman said after Trump’s embarrassed (and pardoned) former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn visited the Oval Office. The visit came right after his outrageous interview with the pro-Trump Newsmax media on December 17th, in which Flynn said the president could « use military capabilities and bring them to these (swing) states and basically an election to repeat ». The president undoubtedly loved the interview.
« It was a whole pattern of behavior » that worried the 10 men, Edelman continued – including hasty moves by the new partisans Trump had named top posts in the Pentagon. « Everyone was concerned that Trump might invoke the Insurrection Act, » which would enable him to mobilize the military on active duty using the excuse of street violence from pro-Trump groups that the president used to protest the election urges.
There were also concerns that the president might spark an international crisis – perhaps with Iran – to try to keep power.
« We didn’t know about the tape at the time of the statement « Edelman said, referring to the tape from Trump’s outrageous phone call to the Georgian Foreign Minister. He demanded that he « find » enough votes to convert the president’s defeat into victory. “But it shows how he thinks. He is ready to do anything to stay in office. That warrants concern. «
What is so amazing about this group statement is that it takes seriously a possibility that most Americans, including myself, have been sacked by now – that Trump might actually try to make a military coup.
The idea still seems highly dubious. The president only has two weeks left and even his cowardly GOP claque in Congress could leave him. Furthermore, the military would undoubtedly slow down such unconstitutional efforts until Jan. 20.
However, the President’s patsies at the Pentagon, including Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, may be ready to give his orders. « You have a situation where DOD has been pressured by the president to politicize itself, » says former Under-Secretary of State for Defense Dov Zakheim. “Trump seems to believe that DOD is an arm of the Oval Office to defend everything he does. And nobody knows what to do. “
What also inspired this extraordinary statement was the President’s unconstitutional attack on the elections and the spineless GOP lawmakers who favored him. Even more dangerous, the endless stream of lies about electoral fraud that Trump spreads on Twitter and at rallies, reinforced by pro-Trump media (Newsmax, OAN, Fox commentators), has convinced a large part of the country to vote trustworthy ones are not possible.
Even if he has to be carried out of the White House and can no longer command troops, Trump will undoubtedly continue to spread his poison and agitate for the civil war. But until he is gone – and after that – the number and weight of serious political leaders who question his lies is crucial. And that number will be critically important in helping President-elect Joe Biden do business.
So what the Defense Ministers say is really significant. « It’s a historical document that has never existed, » says Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution. « It’s a shot over the bow. People will look back and say it was necessary. If Trump doesn’t succeed, it’s because a pushback took place. That’s probably why the former secretaries thought they were shouldn’t wait, act now. «
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