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Former Pentagon chiefs warn Trump against using military in election dispute

Any steps made by Pentagon in regards to election 'would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory', 10 former defence secretaries wrote
US President Donald Trump has pressed for ways to overturn US election ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's 20 January inauguration (AFP/File photo)

Ten former US defence secretaries have warned against involving the military in pursuing claims of election fraud, arguing it would take the country into "dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory".

US President Donald Trump has used various methods, from recounts to litigation, to press for ways to overturn President-elect Joe Biden's 3 November victory. 

The defence secretaries - including Dick Cheney; James Mattis; Mark Esper; Leon Panetta; Donald Rumsfeld; William Cohen; Chuck Hagel; Robert Gates; William Perry; and Ashton Carter - insisted that Trump's fight was over and called for a smooth presidential transition, which is set to take place on 20 January. 

"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," the 10 men, who have served both Democrats and Republicans, said in an opinion piece in the Washington Post on Sunday. 

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"The time for questioning the results has passed; the time for the formal counting of the electoral college votes, as prescribed in the Constitution and statute, has arrived."

That same day, the Post published a recording of a recent phone call between Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, during which the president pressured the official to "find" the 11,779 votes needed to overturn the state's election.

Trump told Raffensperger that standing by the election results put him and his team in some sort of legal jeopardy.

"You know what they did and you're not reporting it. That's a criminal - that's a criminal offence. And you can't let that happen. That's a big risk to you and to Ryan, your lawyer," Trump said on the recording. 

The audio file was the latest cause for speculation that President Trump could be willing to take drastic measures to keep his hold on power. Some have even warned that he could attempt to deploy the military as a means to remain in the White House - a concern that prompted the defence chiefs' message. 

The group wrote that implementing the military as a means to settle any 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," the letter states.

'No role for the US military'

Fears of military involvement were heightened in November, following the sacking of then-defence secretary Esper and several other top Pentagon officials, all of whom were replaced by Trump loyalists

A month previous, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told NPR that the military would continue its position of playing no role in politics, and said he trusted US institutions to handle the election's aftermath.

"This isn't the first time that someone has suggested that there might be a contested election," Milley said at the time.

"There's no role for the US military in determining the outcome of a US election. Zero. There is no role there," he said.

Specifically, Sunday's joint letter was spurred by a column penned by writer David Ignatius in the Post just over a week earlier, in which Ignatius outlined Trump administration moves that reportedly had defence officials worried, including the appointment of Chris Miller as acting defence chief, Politico reported.  

Eric Edelman, a former ambassador to Turkey and undersecretary of defence for George W Bush, told the news agency that he had organised the letter after reading the Ignatius column and reaching out to former Secretary Cheney. 

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"When the David Ignatius piece came out, that was alarming,"  Edelman said. "It was not inconsistent with conversations I had with Esper after he resigned, in terms of concerns about what might be going on with this clown car of people that they've got over there around Miller".

"When you are a former senior official, people you know are still there, you hear stuff," he added. “I'd heard things that were eerily similar to what was in the Ignatius column.”

Edelman said he and Eliot Cohen, an expert on civil-military relations and dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, worked on the first drafts of the letter, while Cheney made some of the final revisions, Politico reported. 

According to the news site, the two defence secretaries who served under Trump, Esper and Mattis, a retired general who is still subject to the uniformed code of military justice, needed some convincing.

"I think Jim Mattis had reservations," Edelman told Politico. "He is very mindful that as a former general officer, he is still under the UCMJ and you shouldn’t be criticizing the president as a military officer. Some of the people who were talking to him about this I think ultimately persuaded him that he was not signing on as Jim Mattis, former general officer, but Jim Mattis, former secretary of Defense".

In Sunday's letter, the former defence secretaries stressed that presidential transitions "are a crucial part of the successful transfer of power". 

"They often occur at times of international uncertainty about U.S. national security policy and posture," they wrote. "They can be a moment when the nation is vulnerable to actions by adversaries seeking to take advantage of the situation".