Esper's election year reminder: Remain 'apolitical'

Elizabeth Howe
February 07, 2020 - 11:41 am
Trump speaks to U.S. troops at the Osan Airbase on June 20, 2019

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At the beginning of the 2020 election year and the day after a politically-charged State of the Union address, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper released a force-wide memo to remind military personnel of their "longstanding tradition of remaining apolitical."

"Ethical conduct is fundamental to our Department's ethos and to the success of our National Defense Strategy," the memo begins. "Each of us must be unwavering in our personal commitment to exemplary ethics and living by core values grounded in duty and honor."

Included in this personal commitment is "maintaining the hard-earned trust and confidence of the American people," which means avoiding "any action that could imply endorsement of a political party, political candidate or campaign by any element of the Department."

This is not new news for the Department of Defense — the policies regarding attending rallies or volunteering for a campaign in uniform have not changed. Service members can participate in a range of political activities — as long as they are out of uniform and are not doing so in any way that affiliates their military service. 

Esper's reminder, however, came just one day after the military was featured prominently — through both policy discussion and invited guests — in President Donald Trump's politically charged State of the Union address on Tuesday. The audience repeatedly chanted phrases like "four more years" and "USA," similar to conduct at campaign rallies. In addition to addressing many of the issues on which he is campaigning, Trump shined the spotlight on Gold Star spouses, veterans, a Tuskegee airman, and even a surprise homecoming for a family separated by a deployment to Afghanistan. 

One member of Congress, former Marine Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., left the chamber when Trump began discussing all he had invested into the U.S. military. 

‘America’s enemies are on the run’: The SOTU spotlight on national security
This former Marine, now a Congressman, walked out of the SOTU
WATCH: The SOTU Surprise Homecoming

At the end of last year, Trump also intervened in military matters in an atypical manner when he pardoned several service members accused of war crimes. 

Trump intervenes in military justice cases, grants pardons

Lawmakers and members of the military questioned the decision. Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, said the actions amounted to an “utterly shameful use of presidential powers.” However, the White House stood by the decision to bring the politics of the White House into the Department of Defense in this way, saying presidents have used this authority for more than 200 years. 

Despite the current administration's pattern of involvement with the military, however, the Department of Defense's policies and Esper's reminder remain unchanged: 

"All Department of Defense personnel must be steadfast in our commitment to defend the Constitution and our Nation's democratic principles," Esper's memo reads. "Lead by your example. I am proud to serve with each of you who uphold the values and high standards of our Nation and the Department of Defense."

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