(Just Security | Nov. 2, 2020) An individual, except the President, elected or appointed to an office of honor or profit in the civil service or uniformed services, shall take the following oath:
“I, AB, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”
During the height of the Watergate scandal in 1974 Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger is said to have become so concerned about President Nixon’s emotional state that he instructed the military chain of command that any orders conveyed directly by the President to the military should be re-routed through him to determine if they should be followed. Schlesinger was particularly concerned about orders pertaining to nuclear command and The Trump Administration, which is to say President Trump, has renewed interest in the subject of nuclear command and control and more generally the question of lawful orders.
In 2017, the then Commander of U.S. Strategic Command was asked about the scenarios in which he might advise, or even push back against, the President in a discussion on nuclear matters. General John E. Hyten, who now serves as the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, responded:
I think some people think we’re stupid. We’re not stupid people. We think about these things a lot. When you have this responsibility how do you not think about it? And so – but what people forget is this is a military mission and a military function. And since the day I joined the service, 36 years ago, every year I get trained in a law of armed conflict. And the law of armed conflict has certain principles and necessities, distinction, proportionality, unnecessary suffering. All those things are defined. And we get, you know, for 20 years it was the William Calley thing that we were trained on because if you execute an unlawful order you will go to jail. You could go to jail for the rest of your life. It applies to nuclear weapons. It applies to small arms. It applies to small unit tactic. It applies to everything and we apply it as we go through it. It’s not that difficult. And the way the process works – if you want to get the details later, I’ll go into the details later. The way the process works is this simple: I provide advice to the President. He’ll tell me what to do and if it’s illegal, guess what’s going to happen?
Moderator: You say no.
General Hyten: I’m going to say, Mr. President, it’s illegal. And guess what he’s going to do? He’s going to say what would be legal? And we’ll come up with options of a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is. And that’s the way it works. It’s not that complicated.
More recently, the clearing of protesters in Lafayette Square, the advent of protest movements across the country following the death of George Floyd, and statements by President Trump about the electoral process have prompted questions about when and in what contexts the President may lawfully order U.S. Armed Forces, regular, reserve, or National Guard, into domestic and civil contexts.
President Trump’s tweets, some about military matters, also prompt consideration of what exactly is an order, does it have to take a particular form, and when is a statement by the President a military order? These are urgent questions the answers to which ought to be known not only to the Commander in Chief, but also to the military commanders and units under his ultimate constitutional command. The American public, which reveres the Armed Forces, in part because of their apolitical adherence to law, should know as well so that it can make informed judgments about whether to send its sons and daughters into the Armed Forces and determine whether the military’s leadership is supporting and defending the Constitution and America’s constitutional values and traditions.
However, although the question of lawful orders may be cast and debated with a particular president in mind, or through a partisan lens, questions about lawful orders are recurring and arise in daily national security contexts across administrations as well as everyday military life …
Good Governance Paper No. 21: Obedience to Orders, Lawful Orders, and the Military’s Constitutional Compact