President Donald Trump made his first visit to the military less than three weeks after assuming office. Stopping at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, he received briefings from the commanders of the U.S. Central Command and the U.S. Special Operations Command, joined the troops for lunch, and gave a 12-minute speech.
During subsequent weeks, the President engaged with the military in a number of additional events. They were what one would expect in most respects, notable for his praise of the men and women of the armed forces, promises to expand force structure, and vows to increase defense spending. Unlike most of his predecessors, however, President Trump’s interactions with the troops seemed more like his election campaign’s stump speeches. At any number of times, his partisan political comments were inappropriate for such occasions.
During his introductory remarks at MacDill Air Base, the President said, “We had a wonderful election, didn’t we? I saw the numbers, and you like me, and I like you.” Later in his address, he lambasted the news media by claiming terrorist attacks went unreported. “And in many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it,” he said. “They have their reasons—and you understand that.”
During an otherwise even-tempered address to Coast Guard cadets in New London, the President had a mid-course meltdown: "Look at the way I've been treated lately," he said, "especially by the media. No politician in history—and I say this with great surety—has been treated worse or more unfairly."
In what was intended to be a White House event celebrating the Air Force Academy football team’s success, President Trump devoted nearly half of his 21-minute Rose Garden remarks to politics and an attack on Democrats over defense spending, homeland security, and health care—with Academy cadets standing in ranks behind him.
Most recently, the President last month returned to Newport News for the commissioning of the Gerald R. Ford. After describing his plans to increase defense spending and to achieve more predictable funding levels for the military, he called on his predominantly military audience for assistance. “I don’t mind getting a little hand, so call that congressman and call that senator and make sure you get it,” he said.
The Department of Defense’s long-standing and well-defined policies regarding political campaigns have served the United States well in avoiding the perception that the military sponsors, approves, or endorses any political candidate, campaign, or cause. Most presidents have understood the important principle at stake and comported themselves accordingly during most of their interactions with the military.
With President Trump appearing to be in continuous campaign mode, however, the military is entering unchartered waters. It is not right for the President to use the troops as props for partisan political purposes. With General John Kelly now serving as the new White House chief of staff, he and Secretary of Defense General James Mattis should counsel the Commander-in-Chief to moderate his behavior and lay off partisan politics when he is with the men and women of the U.S. military.
Captain Peterson, a naval aviator and public affairs specialist during his Navy career, is a 1968 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and flew more than 500 missions with the Seawolves of HAL-3 during the Vietnam War. For six years, he served as military legislative assistant to U.S. Senator James Webb (D-VA).
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