Donald Trump attracted criticism Wednesday on CNN for autographing red ‘Make America Great Again’ hats during a high-profile visit to a U.S. military base in Iraq.
Trump’s role as president also makes him commander-in-chief of America’s armed forces. Since he’s a civilian, the military’s rules barring active duty servicemen and women from some political activity don’t apply to him.
But he may have put soldiers and airmen at risk of violating the regulations by jovially signing the hats that some men and women in uniform brought with them when they heard they would meet the president.
A pool reporter on the scene noted that Trump also ‘signed an embroidered patch that read “TRUMP 2020″‘ – a seemingly direct endorsement.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told DailyMail.com on Thursday that the soldiers brought their own souvenirs for autographs.
‘We didn’t bring any of the items with us. They were personal items of the service members,’ she said in an email.
Sanders had blasted CNN on Twitter for airing segments about the controversy.
‘CNN will attack anyone who supports President Trump, including the brave men and women of our military who fight everyday to protect our freedom,’ she wrote.
President Donald Trump signed campaign hats for members of the military during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on Wednesday
Trump critics are seizing on the blurred line between official government business and campaign activity to say Trump broke military rules by putting his signature on something bearing his ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders blasted CNN for what she said was an attack on U.S. troops
CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr said it makes a difference whether Trump’s aides brought the hats to the military base or whether the soldiers had their own on hand; it turned out the latter was true
Former Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, a CNN analyst, said it was ‘completely inappropriate for the troops to do this’
Politicizing events that feature men and women in uniform ‘puts the soldiers – truthfully, all of the military personnel – in a very bad position,’ retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling said during one CNN broadcast, ‘because the military has regulations against doing exactly that.’
In an earlier broadcast, CNN White House Correspondent Jim Acosta played the unusual role of devil’s advocate for the Trump White House.
‘Is this just, a soldier is there and he’s got a hat in his locker, and he runs over and says, “Hey, when am I going to have another chance for the president to sign one of these things”?’ Acosta asked.
The network’s veteran Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr suggested that if the soldiers already had the hats, it would be a less serious situation than if the White House had passed them out. the former turned out to be the case, Sanders said.
But still, Starr claimed, senior officers in Iraq should have prevented it.
‘What commander allowed that to really happen?’ Starr asked. ‘Because this is very much against military policy and regulation. Troops are not supposed to be involved in political activities. The U.S. military is not a political force.’
The president signed one hat after another on Wednesday
Trump hsa a disproportionate number of fans in the military, including one soldier who told the president that he came back to active duty because of him
Politicizing events that feature men and women in uniform ‘puts the soldiers – truthfully, all of the military personnel – in a very bad position,’ retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling said
Retired Rear Admiral John Kirby, a former Defense Department spokesman and a paid CNN military analyst, said a hat bearing Trump’s slogan ‘is a campaign item, and it’s completely inappropriate for the troops to do this. Not supposed to do this, and I’m sure that their boss is seeing that. They’re not going to be happy about it.’
Kirby claimed Trump ‘has to take some ownership of this too. Every time he’s around military audiences, he tends to politicize it.’
A 79-year-old federal law called the Hatch Act prohibits using an official office for political purposes, but it explicitly carves out exemptions for the president and vice president.
Still, according to Air Force Lt. Col Reggie Yager, deputy director of legal policy for the Pentagon’s office of under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, the president should be concerned that he’s encouraging the rank and file to break their own rules.
An Army Lieutenant Colonel whose specialty is legal ethics warns that presidents who politick on base could be opening up the rank and file to military discipline
‘It would be imprudent, Yager wrote in a presentation hosted on the Pentagon’s website, ‘for a sitting president to campaign on a military installation as it would expose individuals to violations of [military] rules.’
The military’s regulations, however, are unclear about how those rules might apply.
They say the Department of Defense’s policy is to ‘encourage’ servicemen and womn ‘to carry our the obligations of citizenship.’
That includes specific permission to put political bumper stickers on their cars, sign nominating petitions, make political donations, write letters to the editor in support of candidates, and attend fundraising meetings and political conventions.
All those activities and others like them are allowed as long as ‘no inference or appearance of official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement can reasonably be drawn.’
Military rules against engaging in partisan politics are by no means hard and fast; this list shoes what men and women in uniform are allowed to do, as long as they don’t give anyone the idea that the Pentagon officially shares their endorsements
It’s not clear from video footage that the base command or the Pentagon did anything to publicly endorse Trump, or that the soldiers who brought their red caps believed they would be shown doing it publicly in a way that would create that perception.
But the regulations direct that ‘[a]any activity that may be reasonably viewed as directly or indirectly associating the
Department of Defense or the Department of Homeland Security (in the case of the Coast Guard) or any component of these Departments with a partisan political activity … shall be avoided.’
The Pentagon did not respond to a request for information on Thursday about whether any of the uniformed personnel photographed and videotaped with Trump slogan hats on Wednesday would be disciplined.