Pentagon officials keep low profiles as political battle rages
Pentagon officials maintained low profiles this week as the presidential election captivated the nation.
Keeping out of sight and mind is in line with defense officials’ pledges ahead of the election to shield the military from politics.
But with President Trump vowing to prolong the political battle, concerns persist that he will try to drag the military into a fight.
“The Pentagon has managed to do what they wanted to do this week, which is to stay out of the news,” said Peter Feaver, a civil-military relations expert at Duke University who was a White House adviser to former President George W. Bush. “Of course, there’s still several chapters to be written.”
Joe Biden is projected to be the winner of the election, with The Associated Press and several television news outlets calling the race for him Saturday morning.
Trump, though, has been digging in on baseless conspiracy theories about fraud and vowing a fight over the results. His campaign has mounted legal challenges in Pennsylvania and indicated it may do the same in Nevada. The campaign also filed suits in Michigan and Georgia, but those were quickly dismissed.
“Hopefully there won’t be any sort of mobilization, political violence or tensions like that because of what Trump has said, but I think it’s a possibility and one that I’m sure that Pentagon leaders have been thinking about, although probably on the low down,” said Risa Brooks, a political science professor at Marquette University who specializes in civil-military relations.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley have repeatedly been asked about fears that troops could be involved in resolving electoral disputes and repeatedly pledged to keep the military out of politics.
Last month, Milley told NPR there are “zero” roles for the military in the election, reinforcing earlier comments to Congress that he foresees “no role” for the military in resolving a dispute.
Esper, meanwhile, told lawmakers last month that the “U.S. military has acted, and will continue to act, in accordance with the Constitution and the law.”
The Pentagon declined to comment for this story.
Esper and Milley have had no public events this past week. Last weekend, Milley spoke off the record to television news anchors to reiterate that the military would have no role in the election, a conversation that leaked to other media outlets.
Some defense officials have appeared at under-the-radar industry and think tank events this week, but there have been no on-the-record press engagements at the Pentagon.
Esper has kept a low profile for months amid his fraught relationship with Trump. Reporters who have traveled with him on recent trips have said he has broken tradition and not spoken with them. Public appearances leading up to the election were often prerecorded or in friendly venues, such as the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Esper is widely expected to be gone in the coming weeks, whether by resigning or being fired by Trump — something that could stoke fears about Trump turning to the military in his fight against the election’s results.
“We need to have a civilian secretary of Defense playing a buffer role right now, and Esper has been doing that,” Brooks said. “The American people need him to continue to play that role.”
In response to speculation about Esper’s fate, chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said this past week the secretary “has no plans to resign, nor has he been asked to submit a letter of resignation.”
Trump has turned to the military for his domestic political purposes throughout his tenure, such as deploying active-duty troops to the southern border and dipping into Pentagon coffers to build his border wall.
Concerns about Trump inappropriately using the military reached a fever pitch this summer as he threatened to deploy active-duty troops to quell nationwide racial justice protests. Esper publicly rejected the idea, fraying his relationship with Trump.
Widespread post-election violence that some feared Trump could use a pretext to call on the military has so far failed to materialize. The National Guard is on standby in several states in case of unrest, but it remains under the command of the states’ governors, not Trump.
Pentagon officials were able to lay low this past week in part, Feaver said, because of “the good fortune of really not having violence pour out into the streets creating the perceived need for strong law enforcement action, and then that would have raised the specter of military involvement.”
“There’s a way that this can unfold that will be optimal from a civ-mil no point of view, and that would be that after the president exhausts all of his legal remedies, and once an outcome is determined, it’s accepted by both sides,” Feaver said. “Maybe unhappily accepted, but it’s accepted. And neither side encourages its people to go to the streets and protest and create violent conditions.”
Trump, if he loses, would also need to facilitate a peaceful transition of power by working with the incoming Biden administration, and U.S. adversaries across the global would also need to refrain from inflaming tensions, Feaver added.
“But, as we know, 2020 has had mostly negative surprises,” he said. “And so I wouldn’t bet a lot of money that we will have the optimal course that I just described.”
During a conference call with reporters about ensuring military ballots are counted, several former defense officials also stressed the importance of leaving the military out of any disputes during the transition of power.
“I go with Gen. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” Deborah Lee James, Air Force secretary during the Obama administration, said on the call. “He first of all said there is no role for the active-duty military in this. Should there be unrest or something like that at the local level, well, of course our National Guard as called out by governors, that tends to be the first line of defense for those sorts of instances.
“I also want to urge that everyone remain calm, and we obviously don’t want to see violence at any level anywhere,” she added. “And I also believe when all is said and done, this will be a peaceful transition.”