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Would the United States military intervene in the election results?

Would the United States military intervene in the election results?
© Aaron Schwartz

There are chilling moments in this presidency that tell us everything we need to know, but they are somehow lost in the fog. One occurred just a few days ago, when General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had to reaffirm for Congress that there would be no role for the United States military in the election this year. For any other presidency, such a statement would be regarded as entirely unnecessary. But in this administration, where anything goes, it was absolutely critical.

His statement came in the remarkable exchange during questions for the record posed by two members of the House Armed Services Committee. Representative Elissa Slotkin of Michigan served as a Central Intelligence Agency analyst and a Defense Department official, while Representative Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey is a former Navy helicopter pilot.

Slotkin and Sherrill have three concerns. First, a “Wag the Dog” moment where Donald Trump orders military action to distract the public instead of protect the country. Second, the deployment of some armed forces to intervene with the election, including stationing military members at the polls. Third, the potential that Trump will claim he is still the commander in chief come January even if the results say otherwise.

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These concerns may seem unusual, but they are legitimate with a White House that seems to believe the military serves as a useful tool to secure partisan ambitions. Trump raided the Pentagon budget to build a border wall that Congress opposed, withdrew soldiers meant to protect Kurdish allies and sent them to guard Syrian oil fields, threatened to deploy active duty military to our cities against the wishes of mayors, sent the National Guard to Lafayette Park to move unarmed protesters so he could stage a picture at Saint John Church, and directed the Navy to keep a destroyer hidden during a Memorial Day visit to Japan last year.

Over the question of refusing any executive order to commence military action for partisan gain, Milley answered, “I believe deeply in an apolitical military. I and every member of the armed forces take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, and to follow the lawful orders of the chain of command. I will not follow an unlawful order.” But how does he interpret an unlawful from a lawful order?

Slotkin asked him whether he would refuse any order to send active duty military to the polls during the election. Milley replied, “We are a nation of laws. We must follow the rule of law and have done so with regard to past elections, and will continue to do so in the future. I do not see the military as part of this process. This is the responsibility of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the components of the executive branch.”

So how would Milley respond to a potential worst case scenario in which Trump will dispute the outcome of the election this fall? He answered, “In the event of a dispute over some aspect of the election, by law, the courts and Congress are required to resolve any disputes, and not the military. I foresee no role for the armed forces during this process. We will not turn our backs on the Constitution of the United States.”

The fact that such questions must be asked is a remarkable sign of our times. But there is a measure of reassurance in the responses by Milley and a survey of active duty voters in the Military Times. Joe Biden leads Trump by over five points, and while the latter claims he has support of active duty voters, nearly half have an unfavorable view of him.

I am not surprised. As a former member with the House Armed Services Committee, I was considered fairly hawkish on national security issues. I visited our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan more than a dozen times. On each trip, I understood the solemnity with which they take their oath, not to any politician but to the Constitution. It is not to protect an ideological agenda, but to preserve democracy and its norms. God bless our troops, and protect them, and our country, from assaults on democracy.

Steve Israel represented New York in the House over eight terms and was chairman with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can follow his updates @RepSteveIsrael.