While attending the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford on Saturday, President Donald Trump encouraged lobby Congress on health care and other topics. Trump said of his budget — particularly the part earmarked for defense, “I don’t mind getting a little hand, so call that congressman and call that senator and make sure you get it.”
This could be interpreted as a direct order from the commander in chief to the service members. And it’s not only a break with tradition to keep military personnel completely out of politics in general, it’s an appeal to support his agenda in particular — the Republican agenda.
Apparently this president sees as our troops as his personal troops, or perhaps minions. This is just the latest in a laundry list of his trespasses against long-standing norms of civil-military relations. He has appropriated service military valor for his own political gain and openly politicked while addressing military audiences.
But Saturday’s breach is stark, even for this president, because of its directness and its implications. The president’s command in Norfolk, Virginia, encourages the assembled troops to discard centuries of U.S. military ethics… and break long-standing military rules.
The military tradition of avoiding domestic politics literally predates the birth of this nation, extending back to a dispute over veterans’ benefits between then-General George Washington and his officers. The officers planned to confront Washington at Newburgh, New York, with a thinly veiled threat of military coup in the event General Washington would not agree to support their plea to Congress. Washington deftly defused the plot, telling his troops that they would sully the glory they had earned on the battlefield if they moved forward with their plans to lobby Congress.
The modern rules against troops’ political activity are contained within the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Article 88 of the military justice code makes it a crime for an officer to use “contemptuous words” against the president, vice president, Congress, or certain other officials, whether for political purposes or not.
In addition, numerous Pentagon rules and regulations aim to keep service members out of politics. DoD Directive 1344.10 bars active and reserve military personnel from conducting political activity in uniform or in any way that suggests they are representing the military.
President Trump’s comments on Saturday put troops at legal risk but in great conflict because of their responsibility to the Commander-in-chief, such as he is. There is real danger in the troops actually following Trump’s guidance. Today, our military today enjoys the highest approval rating of any institution in American society, but, in the words of George Washington, “sullying” itself in the mire of politics is likely to reduce the military’s standing in the eyes of Americans.
We have taken civil-military relations for granted in this country because we’ve had it so good for so long. In countries like North Korea, where the dear leader regularly executes top generals, or Pakistan — where the military dominates politics and has successfully overthrown the government, we see precisely why the rules protecting American civil-military relations were put in place.