Anyone who has ever dealt with the Defense Finance and Accounting System understands that the military cannot organize a two-car funeral, yet there is a growing chorus of people who feel the Defense Department may have a role in deciding the 2020 presidential election.
Most recently, two respected retired Army officers have penned a story in Defense One calling on the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to order the military to remove President Donald Trump should the president refuse to accept defeat at the ballot box.
Paul Yingling and John Nagl argue that the president could defy the Constitution and attempt to stay in office beyond Jan. 20, 2021 even if he is defeated by former Vice President Joe Biden in November’s elections.
This is a terrible idea. CJCS doesn't have that authority, and it's as dangerous a prospect as an elected civilian President refusing to leave office. https://t.co/JZwVV3wsFP
— Kori Schake (@KoriSchake) August 12, 2020
If that happens, the military can either escort the president out of the White House, or they can do nothing and watch as the Constitution dies and “Black Lives Matter Plaza becomes Tahrir Square,” wrote Yingling, a retired colonel, and Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel.
“As the senior military officer of the United States, the choice between these two options lies with you,” they wrote. “In the Constitutional crisis described above, your duty is to give unambiguous orders directing U.S. military forces to support the Constitutional transfer of power. Should you remain silent, you will be complicit in a coup d’état. You were rightly criticized for your prior active complicity in the president’s use of force against peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square. Your passive complicity in an extralegal seizure of political power would be far worse.”
Normally the justice system would handle any disputes stemming from a contested election. In 2000, the Supreme Court’s ruling in then-candidate George W. Bush’s favor effectively sealed his Electoral College victory.
But that kind of a solution would not be possible if Trump decided to completely ignore the Constitution and remain in office despite losing the presidential election, Yingling told Task & Purpose.
“To say that the remedy to a Constitutional crisis is to appeal to the Constitution is an absurdity,” Yingling said. “If Donald Trump refuses to leave office in defiance of the Constitution then there is no Constitutional remedy.”
It’s worth remembering that the United States has not had a military government, dictator, or coup since it declared independence from Great Britain in 1776. Civilian control over the U.S. military has been enshrined since the first American president, George Washington, resigned his commission before taking office.
When asked if he was calling on Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley to commit treason by removing a sitting president from office, Yingling said no.
“My understanding of treason is the Constitutional definition of levying war on the United States or giving aid and comfort to their enemies – so, no,” Yingling said. “A president who defies a Constitutional succession of power might be guilty of treason because he has, in effect, declared war on the United States. He has attempted to overthrow the Constitutional order of the United States through military force.”
Neither defense officials nor Defense One provided a comment for this story.
Civil-military relations experts tweeted on Tuesday that the notion of the U.S. military having any role in determining the outcome of the presidential election is nuts, especially considering that Gen. Milley is not in command of any troops.
“I would love to be assured that wise heads inside the Pentagon are thinking through a range of election scenarios challenge and have, in minute 2 or 3, immediately ruled out their role in anything related to what this mini council of colonels dreamt up,” tweeted Loren DeJonge Schulman, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for New American Studies think tank in Washington, D.C.
Condemnation of the Defense One story was widespread. Retired Army Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, former head of U.S. Special Operations Command, tweeted that the article was “really irresponsible.”
Even suggesting that the military should depose a sitting president is profoundly dangerous to democracy, said Kori Schake, who co-authored a book with retired Marine Gen. James Mattis on the civil-military divide
The Constitution and the 20th Amendment provide the framework for resolving a contested presidential election, said Schake, of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
“The Constitution is clear on it,” Schake said. “The law is clear on it. The Congress is in the driver’s seat and the court is in the driver’s seat. It would be as dangerous to the United States of America for the military to determine they themselves should be the arbiters of this as would be dangerous a president refusing to leave office – so the cure is as bad as the disease.”
The U.S. military is ostensibly an apolitical institution. Troops are not allowed to take part in political rallies while in uniform or to make statements that could be construed as the Defense Department’s endorsement of political candidates – although some troops have been seen engaging in partisan activities in recent years.
Since the Republic’s inception, the peaceful transition of power from one president to the next has been a given. The U.S. military has always abided by the Constitution and the idea that troops would be called on to back a political candidate has been a complete anathema to all sides’ understanding of a Constitutional democracy.
However, this is not the first time that the notion of a military intervention to oust Trump has come up during the current election cycle. Biden told “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah on June 10 that the military service chiefs would personally escort Trump from the White House “with great dispatch” if the president tried to “steal” the election.
And New York Times reporter Ben Smith revealed on Aug. 2 that a group of former government officials conducted a scenario in which Biden refused to concede to Trump after losing the Electoral College.
“In that scenario, California, Oregon, and Washington then threatened to secede from the United States if Mr. Trump took office as planned,” Smith reported. “The House named Mr. Biden president; the Senate and White House stuck with Mr. Trump. At that point in the scenario, the nation stopped looking to the media for cues, and waited to see what the military would do.”