It broke my heart to watch two generals walk like lapdogs behind a five-time draft-dodger

Donald Trump also has threatened to exploit the most powerful military on the face of the earth to achieve his political goals.

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President Donald Trump walks with U.S. Attorney General William Barr (L), Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper (C), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley (R), and others to visit St. John’s Church in Washington after the area was cleared of people protesting the death of George Floyd June 1, 2020.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Last week, Donald Trump trampled the First Amendment rights of Americans to peaceably assemble for a redress of grievances.

Even before any curfew went into effect, the Trump administration ordered federal law enforcement to violently remove Americans who stood in his way of a disgusting, crass photo-op. The president may have been waving a Bible, but in using police to forcibly remove a priest and seminarian from his camera shot, he revealed his contempt for the truly faithful.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Trump also threatened to exploit the most powerful military on the face of the earth — disrespecting our troops in the process — to achieve his political goals.

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It broke my heart to watch Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, a West Point graduate who swore the Cadet’s Honor Code to never “lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do,” and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, walking like lapdogs behind a five-time draft-dodger who is more interested in looking like a leader than actually being one — a commander in chief who views our troops as “killing machines” and glorifies torture and pardons war criminals.

Secretary Esper’s excuse, that he didn’t know where he was going, is not the exoneration that the secretary believes it is. In fact, it’s downright chilling. Every agency leader swears an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Blindly following Donald Trump when he violates the Constitution betrays that promise. Worse still, it sends an insidious and horrifying message to our troops — especially our black and brown troops — that our military’s civilian leaders will not protect them from unlawful orders.

Esper and Milley should be ashamed of themselves, as should my Republican colleague, Sen. Tom Cotton, whose sycophantic defense of Trump’s threats in the New York Times was as dangerous as it was disgraceful, suggesting that he, too, would pervert what our military stands for to earn a slap on the back from the current occupant of the Oval Office, regardless of the damage it would cause our Union.

We know Trump admires authoritarian leaders, and that he proudly touts his ignorance of the United States Constitution. When Trump tests our democracy for weakness, when he pushes the boundaries of executive authority, every American should be deeply disturbed.

A majority of the House of Representatives and a minority of the Senate have done everything in their power to neutralize the threat of Donald Trump. Earlier this year, I joined many of my colleagues in voting to convict and remove Trump for abusing his power. I did not take my vote to convict him lightly, and I remain disappointed that too many of my colleagues failed to see the risk in giving Trump a pass for his obvious, clear and well-proved crimes against our country. For sending a message to him that no matter what he does, no matter who he hurts, no matter what crimes he covers up and no matter what constitutional norms he tramples on, his allies in Congress will let him get away with it.

Trump’s own lawyers literally testified in federal court that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York and be immune from arrest and prosecution so long as he remains in office. Their argument is, essentially, that federal law enforcement has no authority over the president. Never mind that out country was founded on the concept that no one is above the law, or that we fought a revolutionary war so we wouldn’t be subject to a king.

Our democracy is running out of off-ramps. We are perilously close to martial law and the use of America’s military against its own people. But one off-ramp remains: If good, decent Americans disagree with those Trump and the party that’s enabled him for so long, the last off-ramp is the ballot box. Each of us can make our views known there. And we should.

We cannot allow any commander in chief to use our active-duty servicemembers to silence our neighbors. To drive yet another wedge between Americans. We cannot allow any commander in chief to put the reputation of our Armed Forces, the last institution Americans can trust and respect, at risk by using them unlawfully and putting them in a position of exacerbating the divisions driving our Union apart — a sentiment that Trump’s own former secretary of defense voiced this week as well. Tear-gassing peaceful protesters is not leadership; it’s cowardice. Threatening military force and imprisonment against Americans exercising their Constitutional rights is not presidential, it’s tin-pot dictatorial.

America deserves leaders who unite us at all times, but in times of crisis like this, leaders need to listen to cries for help and give those fighting for justice a platform to be heard, not treat them like enemies who can only be dealt with by using force.

Americans are in pain right now, but instead of helping us all heal, Trump is causing even more pain. I know that as members of one of the most diverse institutions in our country, our servicemembers understand this pain — that many are hurting themselves — and I know they want to help our nation heal.

They deserve — we all deserve — a commander in chief who pulls us together instead of abusing our dedicated servicemembers to push us further apart.

Tammy Duckworth, a former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and combat veteran of the Iraq War, has served as the junior U.S. senator from Illinois since 2017.

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