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Esper ducks questions on military involvement in election

Esper ducks questions on military involvement in election
© Greg Nash

Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperISIS Task Force director resigns from Pentagon post in continued post-election purge The perils of a US troop drawdown to the Afghan army and tribes Acting Defense secretary makes surprise trip to Somalia MORE sidestepped lawmakers’ questions about potential military involvement in the election, saying only that the military will follow the law.

Esper was responding to questions for the record from Reps. Elissa SlotkinElissa SlotkinBickering Democrats return with divisions Questions swirl at Pentagon after wave of departures Overnight Defense: Another Defense official resigns | Pentagon chief says military 'remains strong' despite purge | Top contender for Biden DOD secretary would be historic pick MORE (D-Mich.) and Mikie SherrillRebecca (Mikie) Michelle SherrillDemocratic Women's Caucus members split endorsements for House campaign chief Overnight Defense: Armed Services chairman unsold on slashing defense budget | Democratic Senate report details 'damage, chaos' of Trump foreign policy | Administration approves .8B Taiwan arms sales Democratic House chairman trusts Pentagon won't follow 'unlawful orders' on election involvement MORE (D-N.J.) that the pair submitted to him after a House Armed Services Committee hearing in July.

Slotkin and Sherrill, who released Esper’s written answers Tuesday, asked the secretary if he would refuse an order to send active-duty troops to the polls on Election Day and whether he would commit to facilitating a peaceful transition of power.

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“The U.S. military has acted, and will continue to act, in accordance with the Constitution and the law,” Esper wrote as the answer to both questions.

Esper’s response differs from Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyIsraeli military instructed to prepare for Trump strike on Iran: report Top Pentagon official tests positive for COVID-19 Khamenei adviser says US could spark 'full-fledged war' with strike MORE, who stated clearly when the two lawmakers posed the same questions to him that he saw no role for U.S. troops to play in resolving any electoral dispute.

Milley reiterated that stance in an NPR interview that aired Monday, saying he thinks there are “zero” roles for troops to play in the election.

Contrasting Esper's response with Milley's, Slotkin and Sherrill framed the secretary's answers as insufficient.

"Beyond service to any one president, they have a responsibility to uphold the conduct and reputation of the institution that they love," Slotkin said in a statement. "I appreciated that Gen. Milley’s responses to our questions came from that perspective –– both in terms of what he would do as a cabinet-level official, but also demonstrating how important the apolitical reputation of the military is to him. We heard no such thing from Secretary Esper in his responses. And on a question as serious as the peaceful transition of power, it should be pretty cut and dried to be able to respond in a declarative way."

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Questions about military involvement in the election come as President TrumpDonald John TrumpGeraldo Rivera on Trump sowing election result doubts: 'Enough is enough now' Murkowski: Trump should concede White House race Scott Atlas resigns as coronavirus adviser to Trump MORE has continued to refuse to say he will accept the results of November’s election or commit to a peaceful transition of power.

Casting doubt on the integrity of mail-in ballots despite no evidence of widespread fraud, Trump in a White House press briefing last month said “we’re going to have to see what happens” when asked to commit to a peaceful transition of power.

The next day the White House said Trump would accept the results of a “free and fair election” but continued to rail against mail-in ballots, keeping the question alive on whether Trump will consider this election “free and fair.”

Trump sowing doubt about the election comes amid a backdrop of him repeatedly using or threatening to use the military in domestic issues.

Over the summer, Trump threatened to deploy active-duty troops to quell widespread protests against racial injustice and police violence.

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After Trump made the threat, Esper held a news conference at the Pentagon announcing his opposition to using active-duty troops against protesters. Esper is said to have infuriated Trump to the point where the president had to be talked out of firing him. Esper has maintained a low profile since then.

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthyRyan McCarthyArmy secretary responds to news reports on sexual assault allegations in military: 'we must do better' OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Esper reportedly working with lawmakers to strip Confederate names from bases | Enemy attacks in Afghanistan jump by 50 percent, watchdog says | Fort Hood soldier arrested, charged in Chelsea Cheatham killing Fort Hood soldier arrested, charged in Chelsea Cheatham killing MORE, meanwhile, said Tuesday no federal agency has requested help from the National Guard for potential election-related unrest and that if the Guard is requested, they will “protect federal property and support law enforcement,” not “police America's streets.”

The D.C. Guard, unlike state Guards, is commanded by the Army secretary through delegation from the president. During the June protests several governors, mostly Republicans, also fulfilled the Trump administration’s request to send hundreds of their Guardsmen to D.C., despite local authorities not asking for them.

Trump’s use in June of Guardsmen on the streets of D.C. was criticized as him using the military as his personal toy soldiers and for militarizing response to the protests, particularly when a Guard helicopter flew low to the ground in a maneuver reminiscent of the type of show of force the military uses on insurgents overseas.