Overnight Defense: National Guard says no federal requests for election security help | Dems accuse VA head of misusing resources | Army official links COVID-19 to troop suicides

Overnight Defense: National Guard says no federal requests for election security help | Dems accuse VA head of misusing resources | Army official links COVID-19 to troop suicides
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Happy Tuesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: The Army’s top civilian, Ryan McCarthy, on Tuesday said the National Guard has received no requests from federal agencies to potentially provide security or quell any unrest after the presidential election next month.

“There have been no requests from other agencies to support at this time, but we’re always available to support whether it’s [a metropolitan police department] or other federal agencies,” McCarthy told reporters at the Pentagon.

McCarthy also said he didn’t foresee the military playing a role in squashing possible post-election chaos and said the role of the Guard was only to help protect federal property and to support law enforcement.

“We support law enforcement, whether that is at the federal or state and local levels,” McCarthy said. “We don’t police American streets.”

Attempts at assurances: McCarthy is the latest senior military official to attempt to dispel fears that the military will step in should the Nov. 3 election become disputed and turmoil ensues.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said earlier this week that he saw “no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of a U.S. election. Zero.”

“This isn't the first time that someone has suggested that there might be a contested election,” Milley said in an interview with NPR that aired on Monday. “And if there is, it'll be handled appropriately by the courts and by the U.S. Congress.”

Public fears: But some fear the days and weeks after the election could prove to be chaotic as President Trump has continued to refuse to say he will accept the results or commit to a peaceful transition of power.

Trump has also cast doubt on the integrity of mail-in ballots despite no evidence of widespread fraud.

The president last month said he would accept the results of a “free and fair election” but has continued to rail against mail-in ballots, throwing doubts on whether he will consider the election “free and fair,” and whether he will step aside should he lose.

In addition, Trump has repeatedly used or threatened to use the military in domestic issues, including in the nationwide protests over racial injustice this summer after the death of George Floyd.

Context: In June, the National Guard were ordered to back federal law enforcement agents in clearing protesters from Lafayette Square shortly before Trump posed for photos in front of St. John's Episcopal Church, which had been partially damaged by the protests.

Milley, who appeared alongside Trump in the walk to the church, later apologized and said he regretted participating in the photo opportunity.

The Pentagon has since launched an investigation into the National Guard’s role in the June protests, as military helicopters were also used to hover over protesters in a “show of force.”

McCarthy said the Army has completed its portion of the Defense Department Inspector General investigation and it’s currently with the DOD inspector general.

Other administration issues: Trump’s reelection campaign has also used Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Milley in a new online advertisement as recently as Monday, violating a standing Pentagon policy that prohibits military officers from participating in political activity while in uniform. 

Esper sidesteps the question: Defense Secretary Mark Esper 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 Slotkin (D-Mich.) and Mikie Sherrill (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.

“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.


DEMS ACCUSE VA HEAD OF MISUSING RESOURCES TO STUMP FOR TRUMP, SENATORS: Democrats are accusing Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie and other VA officials of using their office to boost President Trump and vulnerable Republican senators in their reelection bids.

In a letter to Wilkie on Tuesday, House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee ranking member Jon Tester (D-Mont.) raised “serious concerns” that official travel and other actions are being taken for political purposes.

“We write today to express our serious concerns that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) may have misused taxpayer funds and other government assets in an effort to benefit the reelection of President TrumpDonald TrumpDC goes to the dogs — Major and Champ, that is Biden on refugee cap: 'We couldn't do two things at once' Taylor Greene defends 'America First' effort, pushes back on critics MORE and certain Republican candidates seeking office in 2020,” they wrote.

“To maintain the integrity of the department you lead, we are requesting a full accounting of taxpayer-funded travel, attendance at events, and related activities by you and other department senior leaders that appear to be in violation of the Hatch Act and relevant regulations,” they added.

What the lawmakers asked for: The lawmakers, who also sent copies of the letter to the VA inspector general and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, asked for a slew of documents, including records for all of Wilkie and other senior officials’ travel until Election Day, information on any Hatch Act training or guidance, and any communication through unofficial means such as personal cellphones or emails.

The VA’s response: In response to the letter, the VA accused the lawmakers of partisanship.

“Secretary Wilkie’s official travel is available online for everyone to see, and these trips to hear firsthand from our employees in the field are a fundamental responsibility of any VA secretary,” VA press secretary Christina Noel added. “The notion that these visits are somehow improper is absurd.”

Accusations against the administration: Democrats have accused several Trump administration officials of using their post for political activity, which is barred by the Hatch Act.

Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, for example, are investigating whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo illegally campaigned for Trump with official speeches and travel.

Takano and Tester’s letter also cited the Office of Special Counsel recently finding that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue recently violated the Hatch Act by encouraging voters to support Trump at an event to promote the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

“In an era when norms and customs, if not laws and regulations, are regularly flaunted by many in the executive branch, it is imperative for senior officials at the department to follow both the spirit and the letter of the law and to avoid the appearance of partisanship, as well as to uphold the highest ethical standards,” the pair wrote.

Singling out Wilkie’s trips: The lawmakers specifically called out three official trips Wilkie took to battleground states.

In August, Wilkie went to North Carolina for the dedication of a nonprofit veterans’ transition facility with Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who is in a tight reelection race. Wilkie also participated in a fireside chat with Tillis, for whom he used to be a senior adviser before joining the Trump administration.

Also in August, Wilkie went to Maine for the groundbreaking of a new national cemetery, appearing alongside Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is also in a tight reelection race.

In September, Wilkie went to Montana for VA meetings and also made appearances on VA grounds with Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who is similarly in a competitive reelection campaign.

Takano and Tester acknowledged that the trips “contain substantial veterans-related policy discussions or departmental management matters for which we have no objection,” but added the itineraries appear “to mix those policy matters with overtly political activities” that “must not be paid for with taxpayer funds.”

Other concerns: They also raised concern about travel by Wilkie or other VA officials to other battleground states including Ohio, South Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, Kentucky and Florida, saying those events “require further scrutiny to understand their origins, objectives and how they were planned, sequenced, prioritized and financed.”

In her statement, Noel said Wilkie’s travel schedule since August has included North Carolina, Ohio, Illinois, Georgia, Tennessee, Connecticut, Montana, Maryland, Colorado, Wyoming, California and Florida.

“During his time in office, Secretary Willkie has traveled in a non-partisan fashion to 49 states—including Montana and California at the request of Senator Tester and Chairman Takano, respectively,” she said.

Takano and Tester also accused the VA of blocking Democratic lawmakers from visiting local VA facilities for oversights, while allowing Republicans to visit.

For example, they said the VA backed out of participating in a virtual town hall organized by Takano’s staff about the Loma Linda, Calif., facility, but on the same day participated in a Republican lawmaker’s event about a facility in Louisiana.


COVID HAVING EFFECT ON TROOP SUICIDES, MCCONVILLE SAYS: Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said Tuesday that he sees a direct correlation between COVID-19 and the rise in troop suicides.

“I am very concerned about the behavioral health impacts of COVID and its effect on our soldiers,” McConville told reporters at the Pentagon.

"Some of the scientists have said they've not been able to show causation between COVID and suicide, but I would argue, at least my sense is, it is having an effect because it disconnects people.”

Growing concern: Army leadership has voiced concern about the increase in suicides in its ranks since March, when many people were told to stay home due to the coronavirus pandemic and the Pentagon began to limit movement of forces.

The Associated Press first reported last month that military suicide deaths since early spring were up as much as 20 percent compared with the same period in 2019. Among Army active-duty troops, that increase was around 30 percent, with 114 suicides as of Aug. 31, compared to 88 last year.

July saw the most suicides at 35 — more than one a day.

Following the report’s release, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and McConville said that the service has moved to improve access to behavioral health care “in the face of additional stress of a pandemic.”

Hesitations: But officials have been hesitant to link COVID-19 to the increase in military members taking their own lives. 

Earlier this month, Defense Suicide Prevention Office Director Karin Orvis told reporters that it was too early to make a connection, as suicide counts “do not account for changes in population size or provide enough time for essential investigations to determine cause of death.”

McConville's view: McConville, however, said when looking at the after-action reports of soldiers who have died of suicide, “it tends to be situations where relationships have gone bad, where they start to feel that they don’t belong, that they’re a burden,” a feeling that can be amplified in the time of a pandemic.

With COVID-19, “especially during the beginning part, people were disconnected. The connection might only be a text between a leader and that’s why in some ways we thought it was very, very important to get back to training our soldiers, bringing teams back together to that they can take care of each other,” he added.

Asked if he partly blamed the pandemic-imposed lockdown across much of the country this spring for the rise in soldier suicides, McCarthy, who spoke alongside McConville, said he couldn’t “categorically say that.”

“We’re concerned about the isolation and that’s we’re trying to find effective ways to communicate with each other,” McCarthy said.

Fresh out of quarantine: McConville, who himself just completed a self-imposed quarantine after possibly being exposed to the illness in a senior level meeting, said he tested negative for the virus multiple times in the past two weeks, including Tuesday morning, and was cleared by doctors to return to the Pentagon.

Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday, meanwhile, chose to do a press event from home at the same time McConville and McCarthy held their media briefing.

“I’m not going to speak for the other members. Each one, depending on the advice of their doctors ... is executing CDC guidelines,” McConville said.

He added that while military officials take the illness “very, very seriously,” there are scenarios where they must be present and unable to work from home.



The virtual 2020 Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting will continue with virtual remarks by Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, among other senior officials, beginning at 10 a.m.

The U.S. Representative Office of the National Council of Resistance of Iran will hold a webinar on “An Effective Iran Policy: Sanctions or No Sanctions?” with former Defense Undersecretary for Policy Eric Edelman and former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph at 11 a.m.



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