Former SecDefs Sign off on an Extraordinary Message

On the op/ed page of WaPo, the 10 living former U.S. secretaries of defense say things that shouldn't have to be said.

In addition to the Washington Post reporting on a certain phone call between the current occupant of the White House and the Secretary of State of Georgia, it was also publishing this: All 10 living former defense secretaries: Involving the military in election disputes would cross into dangerous territory.

In this piece, the 10 former Secretaries (not counting “actings”) make what should be an anodyne observation: “American elections and the peaceful transfers of power that result are hallmarks of our democracy.” However, when this has to be pointed out, and by the former civilian heads of the US military, it makes one sit up a bit and take notice.

It underscores the degree to which the current administration is corrupting our democracy that such an observation needs to be made, but it is even worse when they feel the need to say the following:

As senior Defense Department leaders have noted, “there’s no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of a U.S. election.” 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.

And worse when they feel the need to conclude as follows:

Given these factors, particularly at a time when U.S. forces are engaged in active operations around the world, it is all the more imperative that the transition at the Defense Department be carried out fully, cooperatively and transparently. 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.

We call upon them, in the strongest terms, to do as so many generations of Americans have done before them. 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.

None of this should be things that anyone should have to be reminded of, and yet here we are.

The best-case scenario is that they are warning about a poorly executed transition from one administration to the next. The worst is that they are warning about the military engaging in political actions to support the current president’s desires to stay in power.

The very existence of this document is an indictment against the sitting president and his corrosive influence over the professionalism of the military. (And likely speaks to a longer-term problem if we could get to this place in a mere four years).

Here is the list of signatories to the essay:

  • Ashton Carter (Obama)
  • Dick Cheney (George H. W. Bush)
  • William Cohen (Clinton)
  • Mark Esper (Trump)
  • Robert Gates (George W. Bush/Obama)
  • Chuck Hagel (Obama)
  • James Mattis (Trump)
  • Leon Panetta (Obama)
  • William Perry (Clinton)
  • Donald Rumsfeld (George W. Bush)

This is a bipartisan, multi-decade list that includes a former Vice-President and two former Trump appointees.

FILED UNDER: 2020 Election, Democracy, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Rick Almeida says:

    I never thought I’d be glad to see Vice-President Cheney and Sec’y Rumsfeld’s names on a letter together, and yet here I am.

  2. drj says:

    Not too long ago, the Biden transition team was excluded from Pentagon briefings.

    Something must be going on. Admittedly, it’s not clear how serious the situation actually is, but it’s fairly certain that Trump loyalists are floating some pretty insane criminal ideas.

  3. MarkedMan says:

    The Republican Party of the 1940’s through the 1960’s is gone. Rumsfeld and Cheney, both long retired, represent the last gasp of the former Party, and they are far, far from the best of that contingent.

    The modern Republican Party is the result of an attempt fifty years ago by party leaders to co-opt the revanchist Jim Crow governing block in the South. Rather than co-opt that block, it has instead completely taken over the Republicans at the national level, and mostly taken it over at the state level. Jim Crow governance by its very nature cannot be democratic, for it is based on keeping power in the hands of a few wealthy individuals by pitting groups against each other and disenfranchising one or more of the groups while fostering the idea that the self worth of the other groups is entirely based on keeping the out-groups disenfranchised and under the heel of the governing forces. A strict caste system is enforced, where certain individuals are elevated slightly as a reward for keeping those below them firmly under the bootheel. Whenever people grow discontented with their lot, the people in power generate intra-group strife to distract them, using the police and other armed forces to violently put down those in the out-group. This bloody reprisal serves two purposes: it feeds the basest instincts of the thirsty mob, and it serves as a reminder of what the powerful can do to those who rise above their station.

    That is the modern Republican Party. That is how they operate and we make a fatal mistake in treating this as merely a battle between factions or parties when in reality it is between those who believe in the American ideal and those who serve their aims by dividing America and keeping the rabble down.

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    They stiffened the spine of any soldier or civilian at the Pentagon who needs to defy an illegal order. Very well done.

    I’m fascinated by the aircraft carrier in the Gulf. We sent a carrier along with some B 52’s flying over Iran to say, ‘Hi.’ Tensions reportedly high as we expected a tat for our tit for their tat for….. And then, supposedly over the objections of the Navy, we pulled the carrier out on orders from the temporary, kinda, maybe Secretary of Defense Trump found on LinkedIn. I’m puzzled.

  5. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    I’ve seen two reasons given for the reversal of the decision on the carrier:
    1. Threats against Trump.
    2. To provide security for the drawndown of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.

  6. gVOR08 says:

    Even Dick Effing Cheney? This is an extraordinary statement, one assumes made under extraordinary circumstances. Have to suspect these guys have been getting calls from former associates asking for advice on how to handle improper approaches by Trump minions.

  7. gVOR08 says:

    @Michael Reynolds: NYT says they’ve reversed the decision and the Nimitz is staying in the Gulf. The article seems to raise more questions than it answers.

  8. Gustopher says:

    Just to put this in perspective, we did not get an op-ed signed by every living former Secretary of Health and Human Services explaining that injecting bleach is a bad idea.

  9. CSK says:

    No, but Clorox had to set up a special hotline begging people not to swallow or inject their product.

  10. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    This is a bipartisan, multi-decade list that includes a former Vice-President and two former Trump appointees.

    But remember, the Trump appointees were very very bad people. Completely disloyal. Don’t listen to them, listen to me your Supreme Orangeade

  11. Ellen Botheras says:

    @drj: yes that is very apparent as this time, inFrightening ideas…

  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    For some reason, I’m reminded of a line from a rather longish story in the comic Howard the Duck:

    Entropy, entropy, all winds down.

  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    Hmmm. There’s something in this that I’m not getting. The Navy would certainly prefer, all things being equal, to cycle the Nimitz back for an overhaul. OTOH, if they’re expecting trouble of course you want an aircraft carrier. Though hopefully not actually in the Gulf.

    Supposedly back in 2002 IIRC there was a war game pitting US v. Iran, and by day two the Iranians had sunk an aircraft carrier. The game had to be reset and the officer playing the role of the Iranians quit the game in protest. All out war with Iran would very likely be a mess and accomplish little or nothing beyond convincing them that they absolutely need nukes.

    This is a dangerous two weeks ahead. The Iranians successfully humiliated Jimmy Carter just as Reagan was coming in. They aren’t stupid people, the Persians.

  14. David S. says:

    @gVOR08: I read somewhere that one of the signatories credited Cheney with initiating this letter. Which is just mind-boggling in the implications of how far this administration has dragged us down.

  15. JohnMcC says:

    @Michael Reynolds: The ‘Red Team’ in that war game won until the rules were changed by launching flotillas of small fast boats against the USN in the entire Gulf. Blue Navy couldn’t deal with the confusion. Bonus: The article is by James Fallows.

  16. Michael Reynolds says:


  17. CSK says:

    @David S.:
    I think it’s more an indicator of how widely and deeply Trump is despised. All these people are perfectly well aware that he’s a malevolent churl.