The release of a tape recording by Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger with President Donald Trump is creating a furor. In it, Trump admonished Raffensperger to “find” additional votes to secure a victory for him in Georgia. Raffensperger refused. There the matter rests.
Or does it? The fact that Raffensperger recorded the conversation is itself becoming a subject of controversy. For backers of Trump, it raises further questions about his true objectivity. Releasing the tape on the eve of the Georgia election introduces a kind of Heisenberg principle into the race. The observer of the elections, Raffensperger, is, wittingly or unwittingly, likely influencing its outcome by publicizing his call with Trump. Furthermore, Trump supporters are likely to wonder whether the taping also signifies that Raffensperger never really had much interest in pursuing allegations of voter fraud to the ground in the first place.
In the midst of all this comes a joint op-ed published last Sunday by all ten living former Secretaries of Defense called on the White House to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election. “American elections and the peaceful transfers of power that result are hallmarks of our democracy,” read the letter, published by the Washington Post. “This year should be no exception.” The tone of the op-ed is itself unexceptional but its thesis is not. The implicit assumption is that Trump himself is prospectively eyeing involving the military in the election. The aim of the letter is to aver that the military should stay out of the election. But the gravamen of the letter consists of top-ranking former military officials delivering a verdict on it.
The op-ed stated in no uncertain terms that the military has no role in domestic U.S. politics: “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.”
The letter exhorted the Defense Department—specifically, acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller—to do its part in facilitating an orderly transition of power: “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.”
The op-ed likewise called on the Trump administration to accept Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. “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 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,” wrote the ten former Secretaries of State.
According to Clinton-era Defense Secretary William Perry, the idea for this joint statement was conceived by former Vice President Dick Cheney, who also served as the seventeenth Defense Secretary under President George H.W. Bush. The op-ed comes on the heels of allegations from the Biden-Harris transition team that the Pentagon is obstructing ongoing transfer-of-power discussions. “Right now, we just aren’t getting all the information that we need from the outgoing administration in key national security areas. It’s nothing short, in my view, of irresponsibility,” said Biden in Delaware late last month. The Pentagon denies these charges, asserting instead that it is adhering to a two-week “holiday break” that was mutually agreed-upon with the Biden transition team: “at no time has the Department cancelled or declined any interview. ... after the mutually-agreed upon holiday, which begins tomorrow, we will continue with the transition and rescheduled meetings from today,” read a press statement from Miller. Miller added that he remains committed to a “full and transparent transition.” With the Pentagon and Biden team offering dueling narratives, it remains unclear exactly where the idea for a two-week “holiday break” originated. According to prior unconfirmed reports, The delays were imposed shortly after a mid-December meeting between the Defense Department and the Biden transition team. Later that week, the Washington Post published a story that allegedly relied on information from that very meeting, prompting concerns among Pentagon officials that the Biden transition team was leaking favorable details from transfer-of-power discussions to the press.
To date, President Donald Trump has not publicly called on the military to play any role in his ongoing efforts to challenge the outcome of the 2020 presidential election—nor is there any explicit indication that the president is entertaining such plans in private. In the absence of corresponding steps taken by the Trump administration, the op-ed can be interpreted as bearing a seemingly preemptive character. And yet, the broader political context is unmistakable: the former Defense Secretaries’ reaffirmation that the military plays no part in “resolving election disputes” carries clear connotations amid ongoing partisan clashes in Washington. But it also poses an unprecedented break with American political tradition: ten former top defense officials have now waded into an active political matter that does not principally concern the Defense Department.
In their declaration that the “time for questioning the results has passed,” the statement’s authors have dismissed outright the ongoing legal efforts by the sitting president and dozens of elected Republican politicians to challenge Joe Biden’s electoral college victory. Ten former Secretaries of Defense have thrust themselves into a domestic electoral dispute that, so far, has been conducted solely through the proper channels; namely, the court system and panel hearings. The op-ed marks a further blurring of lines between internal democratic procedure and what has been the growing domestic influence of the national security apparatus. The long-term consequences of this creeping erosion of longstanding norms have yet to be acknowledged, let alone thoroughly considered, in the public discourse.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.