Is Trump Making Democracy-Threatening Phone Calls to the Pentagon, Too?

After Donald Trump’s self-incriminating and extortionate phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger was released yesterday, many have been left wondering how many other similar calls Trump has made to other public officials around the country. After all, Trump would need to overturn the election in far more states than just Georgia in order to prevent Biden’s inauguration.

But perhaps we should be wondering less about other governors and secretaries of state, and more about generals and military leaders. Barely noticed in the hubbub surrounding the impeachable offense over Georgia’s election was this extraordinary letter from all ten living former defense secretaries, urging against involving the military in domestic election disputes.

The signatories to the letter are a constellation of names one would rarely expect to see on the same document:  Ashton Carter, Dick Cheney, William Cohen, Mark Esper, Robert Gates, Chuck Hagel, James Mattis, Leon Panetta, William Perry and Donald Rumsfeld. It would take an urgent and dangerous threat to bring all these men of wildly diverging views together in an open letter designed to admonish a sitting president.

From the letter:

Each of us swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. We did not swear it to an individual or a party.

As senior Defense Department leaders have noted, “there’s no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of a U.S. election.” Efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory. 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.

And this in particular is ominous:

Given these factors, particularly at a time when U.S. forces are engaged in active operations around the world, it is all the more imperative that the transition at the Defense Department be carried out fully, cooperatively and transparently. Acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller and his subordinates — political appointees, officers and civil servants — are each bound by oath, law and precedent to facilitate the entry into office of the incoming administration, and to do so wholeheartedly. They must also refrain from any political actions that undermine the results of the election or hinder the success of the new team.

We call upon them, in the strongest terms, to do as so many generations of Americans have done before them. This final action is in keeping with the highest traditions and professionalism of the U.S. armed forces, and the history of democratic transition in our great country.

These statements should be shockingly self-obvious. So why did they need to be made? What is happening between Trump and the Pentagon that this would be necessary?

Pentagon officials are in a precarious position. They are bound to obey civilian leadership. But they are also bound to refuse illegal orders. Retired officials generally stay in close contact with still in service, and have much more flexibility to speak out when civilian leadership is at odds with Pentagon brass. This can be a bad thing when the brass is refusing reforms, but it can definitely be a good thing when a president is abusing the military.

The refusal of the military to cooperate with Trump’s authoritarian predilections has been one of the saving graces of this ugly era. To its great credit–and the pleasant surprise of many on the left–the military has mostly remained professional and loyal to the Constitution. It has largely resisted letting itself be used for Franco-style parades, or for quashing domestic protests, or other nefarious ends. Top officials repeatedly spoke out against Trump’s pardons of war criminals.

Given Trump’s desperation to remain in power by any means necessary, his authoritarian instincts, his pretenses at military support, and his general assumption that all branches of the government work for him directly rather than the Constitution, it would be shocking if Trump were not attempting to force Pentagon officials into overthrowing democracy.

And indeed, if he weren’t doing so, why was the letter written? Why did every living former defense secretary sign it? Why did it mention explicitly the duties of the officials involved to respect and facilitate the transition of power?

We should be deeply concerned about whatever Trump may be doing to keep himself in power. We deserve to know what other illegal, mafioso conversations Trump may be having with even graver implications than the ones in Georgia. We deserve to know what is happening that caused this letter to be written with such forceful urgency.

All of it must come to light and there must be accountability.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.