On National Security | Defense contractors forced into uneasy role in wake of Capitol riot
As the fallout from the Jan. 6 deadly siege on the U.S. Capitol continues, the crisis has forced a reckoning of sorts in a sector of American industry that typically steers clear of political controversy.
Major government contractors in the defense and space sectors last week announced they would suspend all political donations in the wake of riots perpetrated by a pro-Donald Trump mob trying to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s electoral win as the nation’s next president.
Boeing, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, Raytheon Technologies and Leidos are among the defense and aerospace companies that so far have made public statements on their decision to halt contributions to political campaigns. These companies’ stance on political donations followed moves by trade groups and CEOs from others sectors of the economy to stop giving money to Republican members of Congress who voted to overturn the results of the presidential election and pushed falsehoods about election fraud. Defense companies didn’t single out lawmakers, deciding instead to pause all donations for the time being.
“Democracy thrives on passionate debate and different opinions but dies in anarchy and violence,” said Leidos CEO Roger Krone in a statement denouncing the attack on the Capitol.
Companies that do business with the government, and especially Pentagon contractors, are notoriously cautious and rarely take stands in divisive political fights. They usually give money to both Democrats and Republicans, and their lobbyists work both sides of the aisle to influence budgets, policy and legislation. Every time there is a change in administration or shift in Congress, K Street politically realigns itself to better position their clients. Violent insurrections and coup attempts are not scenarios the industry plans for.
At the Pentagon, the unrest and its fallout drove the top brass into uncharted territory. Generals remained silent for several days after the riot but on Jan. 12 the eight members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — the nation’s highest ranked four-star officers — issued a message to the entire U.S. military strongly condemning the violence at the Capitol and pointing out that threats to American democracy can be foreign but also domestic.
U.S. military leaders pride themselves on being nonpartisan and apolitical. But they had a fraught relationship with Trump who as commander in chief politicized the military and threatened to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act to send active-duty troops to quell Black Lives Matter protests in U.S. cities. In the Jan. 12 letter to the force, the Joint Chiefs said the U.S. armed forces are trusted by the American people to “protect them and our Constitution … against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
The Joint Chiefs of Staff weighing in on domestic political events is a rare thing. “Imagine the world in which all the Joint Chiefs felt the need to sign this document. Then realize that we are living in that world,” former Pentagon procurement chief Frank Kendall, who served during the Obama administration, wrote in a social media post.
In what would be considered normal times, defense and space executives and lobbyists would be planning for the arrival of a new president by gaming out the administration’s possible moves on spending proposals, policies and regulations.
For now, the industry just wants a peaceful transfer of power. “We must remain committed to this as a nation,” Aerospace Industries Association president and CEO Eric Fanning said in a statement. “Ensuring the peaceful transition of power is a hallmark of our democracy.”
After the dust settles and the nation swears in its 46th president Jan. 20, corporations will reassess their decision to cut off the political money spigot and will get back to business as usual. But this dark episode in American history will never be forgotten.
Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.
“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Jan. 18, 2021 issue.