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Time to question election results has passed, former defense secretaries say

Mark Esper
Mark EsperStefani Reynolds/Bloomberg

WASHINGTON - The time to question election results has passed, and there is no role for the military in changing them, all of the living former defense secretaries said in an extraordinary rebuke to President Donald Trump and other Republicans who are backing unfounded claims of widespread fraud at the ballot box.

The former Pentagon chiefs issued their warning Sunday evening in an opinion piece that they co-authored and published in The Washington Post. Its authors include Trump's two former defense secretaries, Jim Mattis and Mark Esper, as well as each living Senate-confirmed Pentagon chief dating back to former vice president Dick Cheney, who was defense secretary under President George H.W. Bush.

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The article was published as some Republicans plan to contest the electoral college vote certification Wednesday, even after the president's attempts to challenge election results in court have failed. It also comes as concerns persist that Trump might seek to use the military to keep him in office, despite his electoral loss.

"Our elections have occurred. Recounts and audits have been conducted," the former defense secretaries wrote. "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."

The article brings together a group of Republicans and Democrats who disagree on many national security issues. Its genesis is a conversation between Eric Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador and defense official in Republican administrations, and Cheney about how the military might be used in coming days, Edelman said in an interview.

While Trump has called reports that he discussed the possibility of invoking martial law to overturn election results "fake news," he did have Michael Flynn, a retired Army general and former national security adviser for Trump, at the White House recently after Flynn suggested on television that Trump could declare martial law and use the military to hold new elections.

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Protests are expected in Washington on Trump's behalf this week, and the president has encouraged his supporters to show up, tweeting, "Be there, will be wild!"

Edelman, who was among a group of Republicans who endorsed Biden over Trump, said that after Cheney expressed interest in co-writing an opinion piece, Edelman solicited participation from other former defense secretaries, and wrote a draft of the article along with Eliot Cohen, a former Republican national security official who is dean of the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced Studies.

Some of the defense secretaries requested revisions, but nothing significant to the message, Edelman and Cohen said.

"I do think that once one signs, another might be more willing to sign. But I still think it's pretty remarkable," said Cohen, an expert on civil-military relations. "This is a fairly gutsy thing to do, and I give them a lot of credit for it."

Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator who served as a defense secretary for President Barack Obama, said in an interview on Sunday that he asked ahead of publication whether the piece would be an overreaction to a potential problem.

But he ultimately decided that it was wise to weigh in, citing a desire to remind those serving in the Defense Department of their responsibility to help ensure a peaceful transition of power.

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"This is a fundamental element of our democracy, and it lands squarely in the responsibilities of defense officials," Hagel said. "I thought, in the end, that this was something that was important that we do."

William Cohen, who served as defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, said in an interview that the discussion of martial law alarmed him, especially after Trump's use of the military and other federal forces to remove protesters outside the White House in June.

The former defense secretary also cited the use of federal law enforcement personnel to remove protesters in Portland, Ore., in unmarked vehicles as another abuse of power. While he said he has no doubts about the willingness of Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other senior military officials to follow the law, he is concerned that potential violence started by Trump supporters including the Proud Boys in coming days could be used as a pretext to use the military against civilians again.

"It's a very dangerous course of action that needs to be called out before it happens," Cohen said of using the military against civilians.

Other former defense secretaries either could not be reached for comment, or declined to speak, citing a desire to let the article speak for itself.

In addition to stating their concerns about the ongoing contesting of the election, the defense secretaries backed recent comments from senior military leaders that there is no role for the military in determining the outcome of a U.S. election, a point they affirmed after Flynn suggested that the president could invoke martial law.

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"Efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory," the defense secretaries wrote. "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 former Pentagon chiefs also called on acting defense secretary Christopher Miller and other Trump administration officials in the Pentagon to "wholeheartedly" facilitate a transition to President-elect Joe Biden's administration.

While some transition meetings were carried out in late-November and December, Miller canceled others beginning Dec. 18, citing a backlog of work that senior Pentagon lawyers had.

"We call upon them, in the strongest terms, to do as so many generations of Americans have done before them," the former defense secretaries said of the transition. "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."

Pentagon officials have said those transition meetings will begin again in a significant way this week, and they denied accusations by Biden that his transition team had encountered “roadblocks” to needed information that smacked of “irresponsibility.” Among those meeting with the transition team this week are senior officers including Gen. Scott Miller, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top commander overseeing operations in Africa.

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