The surprise visit by President Donald Trump to military personnel in Iraq and Germany the day after Christmas was a particularly welcome development, given his previous departure from this time-honored tradition of his predecessors around the holiday season. The visits were marred, however, by the president’s overtly political rhetoric and by his encouragement of the small number of uniformed personnel who offered him their “Make America Great Again” hats to sign, or who displayed campaign banners. It’s the latest instance of the erosion of long-standing commitments to apolitical institutions—and the comparative indifference with which these acts were greeted ought to worry all of us.
Employees of the U.S. government, in general, face restrictions on the “political activity” in which they can engage in the workplace. Uniformed members of the U.S. military are arguably held to a high standard of nonpolitical behavior, even outside the workplace and particularly while in uniform. The presence of campaign paraphernalia at a presidential visit—and the president’s blithe disregard for protocol in choosing to sign some of that paraphernalia, to say nothing of his politically tinged speech to military personnel in a war zone—runs afoul of at least the spirit, if not the letter, of written rules such as Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 (Political Activities) and Uniform Code of Military Justice Article 88 (Contempt Toward Officials) and Article 134 (General Article).