All 10 Living Former Defense Secretaries Warn: Military Involvement In Election Would Be 'Unconstitutional'

Sean Neumann
·3 min read

Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Pentagon

In an unprecedented open letter published Sunday, all 10 living former defense secretaries called on the U.S. military to refrain from getting involved in President Donald Trump’s ongoing push to delegitimize the 2020 election results.

Defense secretaries, who lead the Department of Defense, are second in command of the U.S. military behind the sitting president and traditionally refrain from making public statements about politics.

All 10 of the country’s living, former secretaries — Dick Cheney, James Mattis, Mark Esper, Leon Panetta, Donald Rumsfeld, William Cohen, Chuck Hagel, Robert Gates, William Perry and Ashton Carter — signed the letter, published by The Washington Post. Mattis and Esper both served in the role during Trump’s presidency.

The former military leaders’ extraordinary statement comes as Trump, 74, continues to cite baseless conspiracy theories arguing President-elect Joe Biden’s election was somehow flawed. Congress is set to certify Biden’s victory on Wednesday, while Trump’s legal challenges have been dismissed or declined, including twice by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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“Our elections have occurred,” the defense secretaries wrote. “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.”

“The time for questioning the results has passed,” their letter continued. “The time for the formal counting of the electoral college votes, as prescribed in the Constitution and statute, has arrived.”

Erin Schaff - Pool/Getty President Donald Trump

Mark Makela/Getty President-elect Joe Biden

Afterwards, on CNN, Cohen recognized the group’s letter was a “highly unusual” step taken by former military officials.

Cohen, a Republican, had served as the defense secretary under President Bill Clinton from 1997-2001. He said the former officials felt “compelled” to address Trump’s ongoing attacks on the election.

"It was really our attempt to call out to the American people,” Cohen explained. “We believe all of them are patriotic. They've been led down a path by President Trump, which is an unconstitutional path.”

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Later, in a tweet, Perry said it was Cheney — who served as defense secretary under President George H.W. Bush before serving as vice president alongside President George W. Bush — who had come up with the idea for the letter.

“Each of us swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” Perry, 93, tweeted. “That oath does not change according to party designation.”

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Trump’s use of the military has been criticized throughout his presidency, most notably last June when he strolled across Lafayette Park for a photo-op after authorities forcibly dispersed peaceful demonstrators who were protesting the police killing of George Floyd.

Concern over Trump’s handling of the military has intensified since November, when the president removed Esper from his role as defense secretary. Esper, 56, had publicly disagreed with Trump last June over the president’s idea to use the military to quell protests over racial injustice and police brutality.

After ousting Esper, Trump soon appointed Christopher Miller as acting defense secretary.

The former defense secretaries’ letter Sunday directly addressed Miller “and his subordinates — political appointees, officers and civil servants,” saying they “are each bound by oath, law and precedent to facilitate the entry into office of the incoming administration, and to do so wholeheartedly.”

“Efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory,” they warned. “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.”