War Stories

The SecDefs Speak Out

Top national security officials are now worried Trump could try to use the military to stay in power.

Trump is seen pumping his fist while standing ahead of a crowd.
President Donald Trump holds up his fist at a rally to support Republican Senate candidates at Valdosta Regional Airport in Valdosta, Georgia, on Dec. 5. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images

In an unprecedented critique of a sitting president, all of the 10 living former secretaries of defense—from five administrations, Democratic and Republican—have warned that the time for challenging the 2020 election results has passed, that ordering the U.S. armed forces to resolve disputes would be “dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional,” and that those who issue or execute such orders “would be accountable” and possibly face “criminal penalties” for “the grave consequences of their actions on our republic.”

The statement, released Sunday night as a Washington Post op-ed, indicates that not only left-leaning conspiracy theorists but several top denizens of the national security establishment are concerned President Donald Trump might try to take drastic action—even military action—to reverse his clear loss to Joe Biden and extend his grip on power.

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None of the 10 signatories believe Trump could successfully pull off a coup, according to two former officials involved in the statement. They’re convinced the Joint Chiefs of Staff would disobey any such effort as an “unlawful order.” However, senior officers inside the Pentagon, who are said to be alarmed by Trump’s recent behavior, have told some of the former secretaries that they greatly appreciate the statement’s message.

The former secretaries were moved to sign the op-ed by three factors: the remark last month by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former (and recently pardoned) national security adviser, that Trump could declare “martial law” and order the military to supervise a do-over of the election; Trump’s own increasingly erratic and desperate behavior in trying to reverse the election through dubious legal means (and the statement was written before the notorious phone call on Saturday with Georgia’s secretary of state); and the refusal of top Pentagon officials to cooperate with President-elect Biden’s transition team.

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The cessation of cooperation in mid-December is what “set off the alarm bells” that led to the drafting of the op-ed, according to one former official involved in the process. In one section of the statement, the secretaries note that, during a transition, the Pentagon’s current top officials are “bound by oath, law and precedent to facilitate the entry into office of the incoming administration” and to “refrain from any political actions that undermine the results of the election or hinder the success of the new team.” Shortly after the election, Trump fired the Pentagon’s top officials and replaced them with loyalists, some of them unqualified ideologues. Some have worried—though the op-ed doesn’t say so explicitly—that these short-termers, who are closely tethered to Trump, are not only obstructing Biden’s transition but might also be planning some acts of ultimate desperation in Trump’s final days.

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Politico reports (and my own sources confirm) that the idea to write the op-ed was conceived by Dick Cheney, who was President George H.W. Bush’s defense secretary a decade before he became George W. Bush’s vice president. Cheney enlisted Eric Edelman, a former undersecretary of defense for the younger Bush, to draft the letter. Eliot Cohen, another former Bush official and a highly regarded strategist, also reportedly added touches to the note, as did Cheney. Edelman and Cohen were vocal members of the #NeverTrump movement of former GOP officials who vowed never to work for Trump.

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The Post op-ed was signed by defense secretaries for Presidents Bush the elder (Cheney), Bill Clinton (William Perry, William Cohen), Bush the younger (Donald Rumsfeld, Robert Gates), Barack Obama (Gates, Chuck Hagel, Leon Panetta, Ashton Carter), and Trump himself (James Mattis, Mark Esper).

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Charles Stevenson, professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of SecDef: The Nearly Impossible Job of Secretary of Defense, said in an email that never before have so many former Pentagon chiefs signed a joint statement of any sort. “And what’s surprising,” he added, “is that it’s not just on ‘we like a strong defense.’ It’s on politics and democracy”—realms where such officials, and especially former generals such as Mattis, would rather not roam.

The difference in this case, which makes all the difference in the world, is that the former secretaries are warning their successors not to engage in electoral politics—and they are concerned about not just the status of this election but the future of democracy.

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