Report

Defense Secretaries Worried About a Trump Power Grab

Talk of Trump imposing martial law helped spur the ex-Pentagon chiefs to speak out.

By Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
A plaque of the Department of Defense seal is seen January 26, 2012 at the Pentagon in Washington, DC.
A plaque of the Department of Defense seal is seen January 26, 2012 at the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. defense secretaries who published a scathing opinion piece against outgoing President Donald Trump in the Washington Post over the weekend were driven by concerns that he would impose martial law or invoke the Insurrection Act in order to void the results of the November election and extend his term at the White House. 

The article, signed by all 10 living defense secretaries, including Mark Esper, who was dismissed by Trump just days after the election, declared that “the time for questioning the results has passed” and warned that Pentagon officials who helped Trump could “potentially face criminal penalties for the grave consequences of their actions on our republic.”

The article was aided by two former U.S. officials who served in Republican administrations, Eric Edelman and Eliot Cohen. Edelman had been talking with former Vice President Dick Cheney about Trump off and on for months, and kept him informed about an effort by Republican national security officials to endorse eventual victor Joe Biden for president.

But a recent column by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius warning that domestic or foreign turmoil could give Trump a pretext to cling to power helped push Cheney and other former secretaries over the edge, according to Cohen. 

“What really kind of pushed me even more on this was the talk of military law, and employing the Insurrection Act,” Chuck Hagel, a former defense secretary during the Obama administration who served three terms as a Republican senator from Nebraska, told Foreign Policy

“When you look at this president’s last almost four years, he is dangerously erratic [in his] behavior and decision making and actions he’s taken,” he said. “Especially in light of the last 30 days since the election, he continues to pound this narrative that the election was a fraud.”

Those fears continued to deepen over the weekend, as audio of a conversation between Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger leaked in the Post in which the president urged state officials to overturn the election result. Washington is also bracing for protests on Wednesday, when Congress is likely to certify the November election result despite the objections of several Republican senators led by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. On Monday, more than 300 Washington, D.C. National Guard members were activated to head off possible violence. 

“I think any action by a president to use the military illegally, this president or any president, is an issue of grave concern,” William Perry, who served as defense secretary during the Clinton administration, told Foreign Policy. “It’s a really fundamental principle which ordinarily we don’t have to think much about. It’s a sad comment on where we stand now that we have to take this issue seriously.” 

Cheney, a staunch conservative who as vice president in 2003 championed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, has at times shown tacit disapproval of Trump. Last year, his daughter Liz Cheney, a member of Congress from Wyoming, posted a photo of her father on Twitter with his nose and mouth covered. “Dick Cheney says WEAR A MASK,” she wrote. Trump has tangled with Liz Cheney over disagreements on foreign policy. 

The former secretaries were also concerned about institutional upheaval at the Department of Defense since Esper’s firing, including the troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, the realignment of the Pentagon’s civilian bureau overseeing special operations, and the effort to split the dual-hatted chairmanship of U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency.

The former secretaries—along with organizers of the letter—were also troubled that Pentagon political appointees loyal to Trump had been trying to obstruct the transition, after the Department of Defense abruptly cancelled briefings with the incoming Biden-Harris team, citing a holiday break. 

“What’s welcome about it is that I do think it sends an important message particularly to the civilian Trump appointees about the imperative of sticking to the law and assisting the transition,” said Cohen, dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of International Studies and a former George W. Bush administration official who helped draft the op-ed. “There is a lot of concern about the Trump political appointees who need to understand that they’re putting themselves at risk of violating the law and risking lasting personal damage.”

Trump had first floated using the Insurrection Act, an 1807 U.S. law that allows the president to deploy active-duty troops and federalized national guardsmen to suppress disorder, in an effort to quash demonstrations in Washington, D.C. last summer after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police sparked nationwide protests. Esper eventually opposed invoking the act, a decision that caused a major rift with the president. 

The inclusion of Esper and James Mattis, Trump’s former Senate-confirmed defense secretaries, underscores the split in the Republican party—between those choosing to defend the Commander in Chief at Wednesday’s certification vote in Congress and members of the GOP seeking to move on. 

“The fundamental divide which is a divide over character is going to split the Republican Party. It’s a divide over character. It’s a divide over value. It’s a divide over norms,” said Cohen, who played a prominent role in the so-called “Never Trump” movement during the 2016 election cycle. “I think what this does is it calls those folks out.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch