Letter from Joint Chiefs: “Leaders must be diligent about keeping the military separate from partisan political activity.”

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

September 7, 2022

When President Joe Biden called out “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans” last Thursday as representative of “an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” he drew a clear line between those supporting the former president and those from all parties who support democracy. He quite deliberately drew a line between Trump supporters and “mainstream Republicans” who do not embrace the “extreme ideology” of their former allies.

Immediately, Trump supporters attacked the president and rushed to defend Trump, just as more news broke about his theft of classified documents and other presidential records when he left the White House. This tied the Republican Party to Trump, along with what is a stunning national security story that continues to unfold. 

Just tonight we learned that FBI agents found a document detailing the military defenses of a foreign government, including its nuclear capabilities, during last month’s search of Mar-a-Lago. What is at stake here is not simply information about the U.S., or even information about the way our leaders conceive of what is best for the U.S. What is at stake is the security of the U.S. and our democratic allies. Some of the documents they found were so highly restricted that they required special clearances on a need-to-know basis. Trump kept them in boxes at Mar-a-Lago. 

This situation is extraordinary, but yesterday, Senator Marco Rubio demonstrated his loyalty to Trump when he referred to Trump’s theft and mishandling of the documents as “a fight over storage of documents.” Rubio is the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. 

Yesterday’s decision by Judge Aileen Cannon further illustrated the strength of the MAGA Republicans and their positions in places of power. 

Cannon was nominated by Trump and confirmed after he lost the 2020 election. Yesterday she granted Trump’s request for a special master to review the government documents the FBI recovered from Mar-a-Lago on August 8. Today, Ian Millhiser at Vox explained that Cannon’s order could delay the FBI investigation by as much as years (other analysts argue that she has cut off only one avenue of investigation, so they believe it will not be that big a speedbump). The Department of Justice can appeal the decision, which Millhiser agrees with other legal analysts is “riddled with legal errors,” but an appeal would go to the 11th circuit, where Trump appointed 6 of the 11 judges who, if they wished, could further delay the case, and then agree with Cannon. The Department of Justice could then appeal to the Supreme Court: which now has a 6 to 3 Republican majority, three of whom Trump himself appointed. 

Cannon’s order appears to have been intended to send a message. Bloomberg News legal and political reporter Zoe Tillman said today that seven senior officials who served in Republican administrations, including two former governors, a former attorney general, a former acting attorney general, and a former deputy attorney general, asked to send in a “friend of the court” brief in opposition to Trump’s request. Cannon denied their request, saying the court “appreciates the movants’ willingness to participate in this matter but does not find…[it]…warranted.” 

Millhiser asked: “Why would a judge do this unless they are trying to advertise the fact that they are not open to opposing arguments? Just accept the…brief and then don’t read it if you don’t want to make a public spectacle out of not caring what anyone says.” Los Angeles Times legal affairs columnist Harry Litman said he didn’t think he’d ever seen a court reject a friend of the court brief before. 

MAGA Republicans are standing behind Trump in his determination to overturn the 2020 election. In Michigan on Friday, six people filed a suit to order Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to “work together to rerun the Michigan 2020 presidential election as soon as possible.” One of those joining the suit previously handed over her township’s vote tabulator to a group trying to prove “voter fraud” in the election. 

And today, Zachary Cohen and Jason Morris of CNN reported that newly released surveillance video shows that on January 7, 2021, a Republican county official in Georgia escorted into her county’s election offices two operatives working with Trump’s attorneys to try to find voter fraud. That same day the voting systems were breached. The official, Cathy Latham, is under investigation for her role as a fake elector and has given conflicting testimony about her actions. Some of Trump’s allies in the fake election scheme seem also to have launched a multistate effort to gain access to voting machines after the 2020 election. 

Lies about the election from right-wing media convinced these MAGA Republicans of the Big Lie that the election had been stolen, but documents emerging from the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit against the Fox News Channel are illustrating that the people feeding those lies knew they were false. Dominion has sued the media giant for defamation, saying its hosts knew the stories they told of the voting machines switching votes were false and that it has been “irreparably harmed” by the lies that will lead to more than $600 million in lost profits over the next 8 years. The document production has yielded a November 2020 email from an FNC producer insisting that it must keep host Jeanine Pirro off the air because she was spreading conspiracy theories to back Trump’s lies that the election had been stolen. 

And, today, New Mexico judge Francis J. Mathew ruled that Couy Griffin, the founder of Cowboys for Trump, must be removed from his office as Otero County commissioner for participating in the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. In a lawsuit brought by New Mexico citizens, Mathew ruled that Griffin is disqualified for office under the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits from holding office anyone who had engaged in “insurrection or rebellion” against the country. This is the first time this clause has been enforced since 1869, and the first time a court has found the attack on the Capitol was an insurrection.

Now other Republicans are weighing in to suggest that, now that the lines have been made very clear indeed, they will stand with the Constitution if there is an attempt to take the government by force. Today, eight former secretaries of defense and five former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff published an open letter in the national security outlet War on the Rocks outlining the “principles of civilian control and best practices of civil-military relations.” The leading illustration was an image of the U.S. Constitution. 

These former military leaders noted the many factors that have created “an exceptionally challenging civil-military environment,” and reiterated that “civilian control of the military is part of the bedrock foundation of American democracy.” They noted that “[t]he military—active-duty, reserve, and National Guard—have carefully delimited roles in law enforcement [that] must be taken only insofar as they are consistent with the Constitution and relevant statutes,” and that “[m]ilitary and civilian leaders must be diligent about keeping the military separate from partisan political activity.” 

This is a calmer echo of the open letter the ten living former secretaries of defense published on January 3, 2021, in the Washington Post, which called for a peaceful transition of power after the 2020 election and seemed to warn colleagues not to back the former president’s attempts to create an uprising. They said: “Efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory. Civilian and military officials who direct or carry out such measures would be accountable, including potentially facing criminal penalties, for the grave consequences of their actions on our republic.”

Perhaps most notably, in an interview with Greg Sargent of the Washington Post, published today, longtime conservative Bill Kristol said that, at least in the short term, the Republican Party cannot be saved. “And,” he offered, “if we don’t have two reasonably healthy parties, the unhealthy party has to be defeated.”

And, finally, the formula shortage has largely fallen out of the news, but the administration has not dropped the ball. Yesterday, the administration completed the twenty-second mission of Operation Fly Formula, which has now flown in more than 85 million 8-ounce bottle equivalents.

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