Reps. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) and Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) addressed their questions in writing to Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, setting a deadline of Thursday evening.
Milley responded to the queries, but Esper has not yet provided answers.
The questions would have been almost unthinkable at any time in the nation’s history outside of the Civil War. The two asked Milley if he was aware that the Uniform Code of Military Justice “criminalizes mutiny and sedition” and if he understood that he was legally bound to follow the lawful orders only of the legitimately elected president.
“I recognize that there is only one legitimate president of the United States at a time,” Milley replied late Thursday.
They also asked Milley and Esper to forswear any military operations launched this fall for political purposes, rather than the security of the country, and pressed them to refuse any order to employ service members in uniform at the polls on Election Day.
Sherrill and Slotkin said President Trump’s conduct in recent months compelled them to ask these questions. Of late, Trump has suggested that he might not accept the outcome of the election and questioned the legitimacy of mail-in voting, which is likely to play a large role in the balloting this November.
“The President of the United States of America [is] questioning our democracy and our ability to run free and fair elections, which I find offensive,” said Sherrill, who served as a U.S. Navy helicopter pilot.
Slotkin cited her background in the CIA in explaining her fears for the country. “As a CIA analyst we are trained to look at trends and the president, since late April or early May, has been laying down these seeds of doubt in the outcome of our elections,” she said.
Both Esper and Milley came under intense scrutiny in June after they were perceived to be acting in support of Trump’s desire to crack down on protesters using military and law enforcement personnel. That perception was fueled in part by the two men’s appearance with Trump in a park outside the White House shortly after uniformed federal personnel forcibly cleared peaceful protesters from the area.
The episode triggered an avalanche of criticism from influential retired military leaders, who said it risked injecting politics into the military and eroding Americans’ support for the troops.
Afterward, Milley made a public apology in a video message, calling his appearance “a mistake I have learned from.” He has also issued a reminder to troops of their duty to the U.S. Constitution.
Both Sherrill and Slotkin said the use of the military to clear protesters from Lafayette Square park in June compelled them to pose such direct questions to Esper and Milley. “I became really concerned that we needed to ensure a peaceful transition of power,” Sherrill said. She approached Slotkin and suggested that they use their role on the House Armed Services Committee to raise their worries with the military’s top leadership.
Esper’s reluctance to use active-duty troops to quell protests around the country strained his relationship with Trump and fueled speculation that he might be fired or forced to resign. Trump recently referred to him derisively as “Yesper,” suggesting that he caved too easily to criticism.
The concerns about the election have only grown more pointed since June. In July the use of unmarked vans to pick up protesters in Portland, Ore., fueled new worries about federal overreach. And earlier this month, Trump suggested that he might not accept the outcome of the election if he lost.
“The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged,” he said.
In his responses to the lawmakers, Milley made it clear that he did not believe that the Pentagon had any role on Election Day and rejected any suggestion that active-duty troops should be present at the polls. “I do not see the U.S. military as part of this process,” he wrote.
Less clear is whether Trump has the authority to dispatch other federal law enforcement assets or ask governors to send National Guard troops to the polls. A defense official said that Milley doesn’t personally support using the National Guard to provide election security and believes that doing so would contribute to the “politicization of the military.”
Slotkin and Sherrill insisted that uniform security had no role at polling sites on Election Day.
“There’s a long history and a dark history of having law enforcement, uniform [National Guard] or uniform military present at the polls and participating in the execution of our elections. . . . Our intent was to try to push the chairman to see that same thing.”