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ANALYSIS

As election nears, Pentagon leaders' goal of staying out of elections is tested

President Donald Trump says he has given Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley added authority in the face of violence sweeping the nation. Trump and then-Army Chief of Staff Milley are seen here in a January, 2017 photo.

MICHEL SAURET/U.S. ARMY

By MISSY RYAN | The Washington Post | Published: October 14, 2020

WASHINGTON — Pentagon leaders faced renewed challenges in their attempt to steer clear of divisive election politics this week, as events during the final sprint toward the Nov. 3 polls underscore the potential for the military to be thrust once more into the partisan fray.

The issues included a new online campaign ad featuring President Donald Trump in the White House Situation Room flanked by Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — in defiance of norms excluding uniformed leaders from campaign material — and criticism from Democratic lawmakers highlighting Defense Secretary Mark Esper's handling of concerns about possible military involvement in a disputed election.

In the run-up to the vote, Trump has appealed to would-be military voters and cited his record as commander in chief as a reelection credential, as supporters of his opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, seek to brand the president as a callous leader who has blamed his top brass for problems on his watch.

At the same time, Trump has declined to commit to conceding power if he loses, fueling speculation about a disputed outcome and the potential for him to reach for the military as part of an attempt to clinch another term.

Esper, an Army veteran, and Milley, a lifelong soldier, appear intent on shielding the military from the nation's charged political moment, but the goal has proven challenging given Trump's penchant for flouting civil-military norms.

From his first days in office, the president treated troop events like campaign rallies, diverted military funds for his border wall project and used the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes to launch his ban on travel from Muslim-majority nations. In rare cases, defense leaders have publicly dissented. More often, they have stayed silent and sometimes sought to push back behind the scenes.

Remaining isolated from politics becomes even more difficult during a charged reelection campaign, said Jim Golby, a former Army officer and Pentagon official who is a senior fellow at the Clements Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

"It's virtually impossible for the military to come off as not taking a side," he said. "If they're silent, they're seen as complicit. If they speak out, they're seen as anti-Trump."

Esper has tried to distance himself from political issues in recent months by keeping a low profile, focusing on executing a military shift toward China and mostly avoiding interactions with the news media. Milley, meanwhile, has spoken repeatedly about the military's duty to defend the Constitution rather than any particular party or leader.

In an interview with NPR over the weekend, Milley sought to minimize the possibility that the military could be pulled into an election dispute, as experts have warned. While most academics suggest the most likely such scenario would involve the president employing the military to address post-election unrest, Milley appeared to address an assertion that the military could be asked to help arbitrate the result.

"I would tell you that in my mind, if there's a disputed election — it's not in my mind, it's in the law — if there's a disputed election, that'll be handled by Congress and the courts," he said. "There's no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of a U.S. election. Zero, there is no role there."

Peter Feaver, a scholar on civil-military relations at Duke University, said the Trump campaign's decision to run its recent advertisement showing Milley — along with Esper, Vice President Mike Pence and national security adviser Robert O'Brien — next to Trump as they oversaw the 2019 military operation that resulted in the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi illustrated the "tone deafness" of Trump's campaign team to norms governing military involvement in partisan activities.

While presidents seeking reelection, including Barack Obama in 2012, have frequently made reference to their decisions as commander in chief, and shown military personnel in campaign material, Feaver said the inclusion of a senior uniformed officer was especially problematic.

"I'm sure that Esper and Milley are uncomfortable with this and don't like the appearance, even though they're not allowed to say it," Feaver said of the ad. "And I hope they don't say it, because that will just extend the damage by getting them crosswise with the president."

Officials said neither Milley nor Esper knew about the ad, which one official said was later taken down, ahead of time.

The ad recalls an incident in August in which several uniformed troops in American Samoa were featured in a Democratic convention video, which resulted in an Army investigation.

Relations between Trump and Esper, Trump's second confirmed defense secretary, have been visibly strained since June, when Esper spoke out against Trump's desire to use active-duty military troops to address widespread protests against racism and police brutality. Officials have said Trump has considered firing Esper since then.

Esper has also come in for criticism for appearing to back Trump's response to those events and later apologized for referring to U.S. cities as a "battle space."

On Wednesday, Reps. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., and Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., a retired Navy officer, spoke to reporters about what they called Esper's "vague, unsatisfactory" answers to their questions about the potential for the military to be employed in a disputed election scenario.

In response to extensive questions from the two lawmakers, Esper provided a terse response: "The U.S. military has acted, and will continue to act, in accordance with the Constitution and the law," he wrote.

Esper's reply, submitted more than a month after a congressional deadline, differed from the more explicit responses provided by Milley in August.

Slotkin, a former Pentagon official, called on Esper to make a firmer commitment to a peaceful transition of power.

The Pentagon's chief spokesman, Jonathan Rath Hoffman, said that Esper is "determined for the U.S. military to remain apolitical — as the American people expect."

"The Secretary will continue to focus on leading the Department in implementing the President's national security policy by prioritizing the readiness of the force, pivoting to confront emerging powers, and taking care of our men and women in uniform," Hoffman said in a statement.

Milley has faced his own difficulties in navigating the Trump era. He issued an unusual public apology in June after coming under criticism when he appeared at a photo op alongside Trump outside the White House, in an area that shortly beforehand had been forcibly cleared of protesters by uniformed personnel.