“If the president is willing to push the military leadership to such a disastrous set of circumstances during the protests, just imagine what he would be willing to do if he wanted to prevent an election result that would harm him,” said Corey Shake, director of foreign and defense policy research. American Institute of Entrepreneurship. “Yeah, yeah, they should be absolutely worried about that.”
As the election approached, the president again refused to say he would accept the results. “I have to see,”; he told Fox News this month. “I am not going to just say that. I’m not going to say no. And I’m not the last. “
The president has warned for months that postal voting – expected to be used more widely than ever because of the coronavirus pandemic – or potential foreign interference in Democrats’ favor could lead to widespread fraud and “rigged” elections, his critic said. lay the groundwork if he decides to challenge the result. The remarks take on new significance as former Vice President Joe Biden, his likely contender for democratic victory, takes the lead in the polls.
Scholars say they do not expect the military to actively seek to influence the vote, but rather that Pentagon leaders may be forced to participate in the contested election in a guerrilla-like manner similar to what happened in the capital in a wave of protests. in June.
Experts believe that history shows that military involvement is unlikely. But since the early days of Trump’s presidency, when he used the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes to sign a travel ban by most Muslim countries, the president has repeatedly challenged civilian military regulations, reviewing military events such as rallies and interfering in military justice.
The most problematic for non-partisan military defenders was the events of early June, during which Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and General Mark Millie, chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, faced a wave of criticism after acting in support of Trump’s politically charged response. on civil unrest.
Both men later distanced themselves from the White House’s reaction and refused to use active-duty troops against the protesters.
Presidential historian Michael Beschloss has described Millie’s apology for appearing with Trump in Lafayette Square near the White House after authorities forcibly removed protesters so the president could be photographed in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church with the Bible as an important milestone. history of America. The events served as a warning story for Pentagon leaders about the risks of US-led hostilities that could be seen as guerrilla warfare.
“I think if the chairman of the Joint Chiefs ever thought about working with the president who challenged the outcome – and I don’t think he ever thought about it – Lafayette Square made many people in the military think about it and decide it’s in their minds, “Beschloss said.
Although Trump did not comply with threats to invoke the Insurgency Act and use active-duty troops against protesters, active-duty troops were sent to the outskirts of the capital. The appearance of National Guard troops on the streets of the District of Columbia as part of the federal response has raised concerns about whether the Pentagon allows its use for political purposes. Trump has also deployed troops on the southwestern border and diverted Pentagon funds for his border wall project.
“First, there is a president who seems absolutely willing and willing to use the tools of national power to achieve his re-election, and second, a president who wants or really wants to use the military on the interior,” said Joshua Gelzer, a former official in the Obama administration, which serves as executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Advocacy and Defense. “We have to be very worried if we see these things coming together.”
Unlike other countries, there is virtually no precedent for the military to play a role in the controversial US election. But concerns about the use of the military have arisen during some presidential transitions.
After an inconclusive election in 1800, leaders of several states began to organize militias, trying to make sure that Thomas Jefferson could take over the presidency of Aaron Burr. In 1974, some worried that President Richard Nixon would try to obtain military elements to help him stay in office, but the concern was unfounded, and Nixon decided to resign rather than drag the country further through the impeachment process against him.
The military was also implicitly involved in settling the disputed election of 1876, when Democrats agreed to hand over the presidency to Republican Rutherford Hayes in exchange for a promise to withdraw troops from the southern states where they had been stationed since the end of the Civil War.
In 1934, retired Marine General Smedley Butler testified before Congress that a group of industrialists had conspired to form a fascist group of veterans and use the organization to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a scandal known as the “business plot.”
Legal experts say the three-month period between Election Day on November 3 and Inauguration Day on January 20 should provide a buffer that significantly reduces the potential for a chaotic transition, regardless of who wins the election.
In December 2000, following the disputed presidential election this year, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of George W. Bush. However, ultimately the decision to recognize the Democratic candidate Al Al Gore ended in this crisis, not a court decision.
“We have more than two centuries of American history, and every time the system decides it, there is no reason to expect it not to happen now,” Besloss said.
However, experts say they are most concerned about the hypothetical situation, including a scenario in which Trump may refuse to recognize Biden’s victory, or the legal challenge may remain unresolved until Inauguration Day, prompting him to assert his presidency after January 20.
Under this scenario, experts say the White House could call on the military to defend the president or, most likely, respond to potential protests based on “law and order,” possibly leading to the president’s previous threats to take action. , regular troops to American cities or take control of members of the National Guard under state command.
His administration has already launched a shocking and alarming response to the protests in Portland, Oregon, sending federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security against objections from local and government officials, which critics have called for political efforts to intensify. Trump in the election.
The president also has special powers in the US capital. With no governor in the District of Columbia, he serves as commander-in-chief of the city’s National Guard. In June, other states sent their Guards units to augment the Guard, creating a military force accountable to the president, who acted on US soil as a law enforcement agency.
It is fundamentally important that the controversial outcome that continues after January 20 will force the military to make an implicit decision as to who is the commander-in-chief. Under the 1947 Presidential Succession Act, Trump will cease to be president at noon on Jan. 20 unless Congress confirms him as the winner, handing over his powers as commander-in-chief to the acting president, the speaker of the House of Representatives.
“The Constitution procedure matters here,” said Stephen Vladek, a professor and constitutional expert at the Texas School of Law.
According to another scenario described by Cardozo law school professor Deborah Perlstein in a recent essay, the Supreme Court may rule on Inauguration Day, but “some significant (perhaps even violent) share of the electorate” may not accept it as legitimate, again raising the possibility of asking the military to respond on civil unrest.
Until Trump’s status as commander-in-chief is called into question by January 20, military leaders will face the dilemma of how to respond to the order without compromising the status of the military as a trusted national institution.
“This would be an everyday scenario in terms of the military’s obligation to make decisions between legal and illegal orders,” Vladek said.
Experts agreed that in the event of a clear court or congressional decision confirming the winner of the election, the Ministry of Defense is likely to enforce those decisions. They also point to laws that would punish government officials who remained and exercised their governmental powers if they were removed by the incoming president. For the military, such an official can be accused of not obstructing a mutiny or sedition.
But experts acknowledged the potential for a more ambiguous situation. They say Pentagon leaders should reconsider the electoral process – much of which is unfamiliar to most Americans – because elections in the United States are not usually the subject of much debate.
“There are so many ways that the military seems to have to think about its role in domestic politics the way it normally doesn’t,” said Risa Brooks, a professor at Marquette University who studies civilian military relations in different countries.
Shake said the events in June forced Pentagon leaders to articulate where they believed there was a line between military and guerrilla affairs.
“This has caused both the civilian and military leadership at the Pentagon to understand the damage that President Trump’s efforts to link military behavior will do to the relationship between the Americans and our military,” she said.
Despite the turmoil in American history, the peaceful transfer of power has been largely unhindered, in line with the tradition established by George Washington.
“Looking at history, it is difficult to come up with an example where the president ordered the military to try to save himself politically and these efforts succeeded. It’s not happening, “Beschloss said. “We have a democratic tradition, we have a process, and even despite these times, these two things remain.”