DC National Guard soldiers and other law enforcement personnel watch as demonstrators protest Saturday, June 6, 2020, along Independence Avenue in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis.

DC National Guard soldiers and other law enforcement personnel watch as demonstrators protest Saturday, June 6, 2020, along Independence Avenue in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Pentagon Leaders Reject Calls for Militarized Election Season

“We support law enforcement,” Army Secretary McCarthy said Tuesday. ”We don’t police American streets.”

Senior Pentagon leaders are seeking to tamp down fears and demands that the military will be called upon to handle any election-related chaos in November and beyond.

The D.C. National Guard has received no requests from other federal agencies related to security or potential unrest surrounding the 2020 election, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said on Tuesday. He sought to downplay any role the Guard might serve in November, telling Pentagon reporters that its role would be limited to helping protect federal property and to “support[ing] law enforcement.”

“We support law enforcement,” McCarthy said. ”We don’t police American streets.”

McCarthy’s remarks come just days after Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley insisted in an interview with NPR that there is “zero” role for the military in the event the Nov. 3 election results are contested. 

The Army secretary heads the D.C. National Guard, which has been under the spotlight since its controversial role in helping quell protests in Washington, D.C., in June, after the death of George Floyd. Guard helicopters hovered low over the heads of protesters in a “show of force” and service members were involved in the forcible clearing of Lafayette Square, just in front of the White House.

Concerns over President Trump’s militarized response to the protests have oxidized with related concerns that there may be civil unrest no matter what the outcome of the Nov. 3 election. Trump supporters, some armed and dressed as paramilitary militia, have appeared at protests nationwide. During the first presidential debate, Trump called on supporters to act as election watchers next month, prompting fears of voter intimidation and violent standoffs at polling places. Last week, the Washington Post reported that Atlas Aegis, a private military contractor, was recruiting special operations forces veterans to conduct election security at Minnesota polls against the wishes of state law enforcement. “They’re there to make sure that the antifas don’t try to destroy the election sites,” said the company’s founder, who would not reveal who was bankrolling the posse.

Still others worry that President Donald Trump might not leave office if he loses the election. Trump has repeatedly declined to commit unequivocally to a peaceful transfer of power, and uniformed leaders have increasingly faced questions and commentary about how they would handle a scenario in which Trump refused to vacate the White House. 

Resolving that particular problem would likely fall first to the courts, the Congress, or law enforcement agencies like U.S. Marshals or the Secret Service before it fell to the military. A more salient problem for the Pentagon might arise if Trump invoked the Insurrection Act to send active duty troops into the streets in between Election Day and Inauguration Day in January — perhaps to police unrest in the event of a contested election.

“This isn't the first time that someone has suggested that there might be a contested election,” Milley said over the weekend. “And if there is, it'll be handled appropriately by the courts and by the U.S. Congress. There's no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of a U.S. election. Zero. There is no role there.”

An investigation into the Guard’s role in the June protests that officials have said for months would be released imminently remains under wraps at the Pentagon. The after-action report into the tasking of the low-hovering helicopters, conducted by the National Guard, is currently being reviewed by the Defense Department inspector general, McCarthy said on Tuesday. He declined to speculate whether the report might be made public before the election. 

The degree to which the military — largely against its will — has been sucked into the divisive national politics surrounding the 2020 election continues to make headlines. In the latest mini-controversy, the Trump campaign ran a campaign ad that used a photo of Trump at a conference table with Defense Secretary Mark Esper that included Milley, despite a prohibition against military officers engaging in political activity while in uniform. On Tuesday, a defense official told Politico the photo was used without Milley’s “knowledge or consent.” Scholars of civil-military relations have warned of the dangers of politicizing the military and a worrisome reliance on the military to solve fundamentally civil-society problems — by both Trump’s supporters and his opponents. 

“There have been no requests for other agencies to support at this time, but we’re always available to support whether it’s metro PD or other agencies,” McCarthy said.