WASHINGTON – As President Donald Trump scrambles to fuel claims of a stolen election in the final days of his administration, the nation's 10 living secretaries of Defense warned Sunday that the U.S. military should have no role in determining the outcome of a U.S. election.
"Each of us swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. We did not swear it to an individual or a party," penned Defense secretaries Mark Esper, James Mattis, Ash Carter, Chuck Hagel, Leon Panetta, Dick Cheney, William Cohen, Robert Gates, William Perry and Donald Rumsfeld in an op-ed published Sunday in The Washington Post.
"Efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory," wrote the former Defense secretaries.
"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," they added.
The former Defense secretaries, who have collectively overseen America's military forces for nearly 50 years, argued that "the time for questioning the results" of the U.S. presidential election has passed.
"Our elections have occurred. Recounts and audits have been conducted. Appropriate challenges have been addressed by the courts. Governors have certified the results. And the electoral college has voted. The time for questioning the results has passed; the time for the formal counting of the electoral college votes, as prescribed in the Constitution and statute, has arrived," wrote the former Defense secretaries, including two that served under Trump.
The secretaries called on Trump's acting Defense secretary Christopher Miller as well as political appointees and civil servants to "refrain from any political actions that undermine the results of the election or hinder the success of the new team."
"We call upon them, in the strongest terms, to do as so many generations of Americans have done before them. This final action is in keeping with the highest traditions and professionalism of the U.S. armed forces, and the history of democratic transition in our great country," they wrote.
Trump, despite a slew of failed legal challenges, has not conceded the election to Democrat Joe Biden, who will be inaugurated Jan. 20. Instead, Trump has touted false claims of a rigged election and has pushed members of his own party to engage in plots to reverse Biden's victory, lashing out when they express opposition to his schemes.
Over the weekend, Trump's ambitions came to light in an extraordinary leaked phone call with Georgia's Republican secretary of state.
During the call with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the president said he wanted "to find 11,780 votes" that would overturn Biden's win in Georgia, according to audio obtained by NBC News.
Raffensperger resisted pressure from Trump to change Georgia's election results even as the president made veiled threats about potential criminal prosecution if he was refused.
At least 12 Republican senators have called for Congress to delay certification of Biden's victory during a joint session Wednesday. Vice President Mike Pence, who will preside over the session, has welcomed the ploy by the senators, which has no chance of succeeding because Democrats control the House and several Republicans oppose the move.
Republican Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, among others, have expressed strong opposition to attempts to reverse Biden's victory.
Pro-Trump protests are scheduled to take place Wednesday in the nation's capital as Congress convenes to certify Biden as the new president and Kamala Harris as vice president. Trump said he will attend the protests.