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Former Defense Secretaries Call For Quick Transition To Biden Administration

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're going to start with this fact. The U.S. military has no role in the electoral process. And yet President Trump and his former national security adviser Michael Flynn have suggested that armed forces could be used to help the president overturn the results of the election that he lost. And the speculation around their interest in this false notion so concerned all 10 living former secretaries of defense, they felt the need to band together to remind the American public that Trump lost and that the military does not involve itself in U.S. elections. Among the authors of The Washington Post op-ed is former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. He joins us now.

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CHUCK HAGEL: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: Now, I understand this idea originated with former Vice President Dick Cheney. But was there a particular moment, comment, something from the president or his allies in recent weeks that caused you distress and caused you to sign on?

HAGEL: Well, I think I can speak for all the former secretaries when I answer the question this way. Yes. When we all learned of the loose, irresponsible, erratic conversation in the White House about imposing martial law through the Insurrection Act, getting the military involved with overturning the elections and holding new elections - and then in light of the tape that came out yesterday, the president browbeating, essentially threatening the secretary of state - the Republican secretary of state of Georgia, the constant inflaming of this issue that the president continues to put forth with his tweets about the election being stolen, fraudulent - January 6, now Wednesday, there will be an effort to overturn the electors' certification of the election. It's not going to go anywhere. It's folly. But all of those things added up to a real concern we all had.

CORNISH: The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, has dismissed this idea. But my question is, if this was an illegal order - right? - wouldn't Milley or other officials hear it as illegal and therefore refuse to follow it?

HAGEL: Well, that's the question. In our op-ed, you might recall that we talk about when our military - every person in the military, every person who is in our government, we all take an oath of office to the Constitution - not to a president, not to a commander in chief, not to a political party but to the Constitution. We follow the law. And if there is an illegal order given by the commander in chief to a general, whether it's chairman of the Joint Chiefs or whomever, he has every right to not follow through with that command. And we just wanted to remind the citizens of this country that we are a nation of laws. That's what we've always done. That's why...

CORNISH: But do the citizens need reminding? Or is this a message to those at the Pentagon?

HAGEL: Well, it's both. I think the citizens - because citizens are in charge of this country. The generals aren't. Nobody at the Pentagon - it's the citizen. And, yes, the citizens need to be reminded. But this was a message also to the professionals at the Pentagon. I have every confidence in their integrity and their honesty and their forthrightness to do the right thing for this country. Absolutely. But...

CORNISH: Do you have the same sort of sense for Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller?

HAGEL: Well, Chris Miller is not a confirmed secretary of defense. I don't know him. I do know that the entire top management - civilian top management structure of the Pentagon has been wiped out by the Trump appointees, putting in people who had no experience, no background in these areas. And they're unconfirmed. We don't know a lot about them other than the fact they're Trump people. So, yes, I have some concern about them. I think all of us do. But we would assume that they would do the right thing for this country and follow the law.

CORNISH: Since you're also a former Republican senator, having represented Nebraska in the early 2000s, we want to ask you your reaction to Republican Senator Ted Cruz and others saying that they're going to vote against seating electors for Biden. I know you said this is folly. Why do you think they're doing it?

HAGEL: Well, I don't know exactly their intentions, but I assume they're doing it to try to develop an allegiance to the Trump base that Donald Trump is leaving behind as he leaves office. And they've all made no secret of the fact - all of them, Cruz and others - that they would like to be the nominee of the Republican Party for president in 2024. I suspect there's very much a political reason for doing this. They know it can't go anywhere. They know it's folly. They know there's no return on this except to prolong things for a couple of days. And it just incites the Trump people more. There are going to be demonstrations in Washington on Wednesday. There might be violence - I hope not - probably around the country. So it's very...

CORNISH: You said the Trump people, and that sort of reminds me that this is a little bit of an intraparty civil war that we're seeing - right? - between traditional Republicans and Trump loyalists. How could this be repaired? Or is this a point of no return for the party?

HAGEL: Well, I think this is going to be an ongoing issue for the Republican Party, certainly the next four years but really the next two years, as we've got a new midterm election coming up in 2022. And who is going to lead the party? What does the party stand for? I think the Republican Party has lost its bearing, its compass, its north star. It's become a Trump party. And the party is bigger than a president or any individual. And I'm not sure what they stand for anymore. It's not the party that I joined many, many years ago.

So this is going to be an issue to the Republican Party. I mean, Biden's going to have some management issues as well in his own party with his left wing. But I've always said, it's not the left wing or the right wing of American politics that govern. And it's the center-left, center-right that govern this country. And both parties, I think, are in a state of turmoil.

CORNISH: That's former senator and former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

Thank you for your time.

HAGEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.