Pentagon Reminds Personnel to Be Apolitical Ahead of Election

February 8, 2020 Updated: February 9, 2020

The Pentagon last week urged all U.S. military personnel and Department of Defense employees to avoid any actions that could be perceived as an endorsement of a political candidate or group.

In a memo to personnel and employees, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said that each person “must be unwavering in our personal commitment to exemplary ethics and living by core values grounded in duty and honor.”

Workers can vote and undertake other political actions but should stay apolitical while on the job, Esper said in the memo, dated Feb. 5 and released on Feb. 7.

All Department of Defense personnel should be “steadfast in our commitment to defend the Constitution and our nation’s democratic principles,” Esper wrote (pdf).

“As citizens, we exercise our right to vote and participate in government. However, as public servants who have taken an oath to defend these principles, we uphold DoD’s longstanding tradition of remaining apolitical as we carry out our official responsibilities.”

Any actions that imply endorsements from Department of Defense personnel could undermine the “hard-earned trust and confidence of the American people,” Esper wrote.

Leaders in the department reported to Esper last year about the annual ethics training, and personnel who are required to complete the training must do so by Nov. 30 of this year.

“Additionally, military and civilian leaders should regularly discuss ethics and values with their teams in the normal course of leading and decision-making,” Esper wrote.

The secretary wrote a similar memo in August 2019, reminding Pentagon personnel to focus on being ethical. His predecessor, Patrick Shanahan, sent out memos a few months earlier to Pentagon employees, writing, “Our policy and tradition also clearly limit active duty members from engaging in partisan political activities or actions that could appear to imply DoD sponsorship, approval, or endorsement of a political candidate, campaign, or cause.”

“What I wanted to do is … remind everyone that we’re not going to politicize the military,” Shanahan told reporters about the memos.

Troops have become embroiled in controversy for allegedly political actions during this election cycle. A major in the South Carolina Army National Guard attended a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden last year while wearing her uniform.

Maj. Ginger Tate told Biden she was praying that the former vice president would be elected president.

“It was very emotional; I’m sure it was heartfelt by the major, but it was also incredibly wrong and a violation of the U.S. military regulations and policies,” retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling said during an appearance on CNN.

Troops have brought hats bearing the “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan popularized by President Donald Trump to events that Trump is attending. After one instance, the Air Force said in 2018 that there’s no rule preventing airmen from bringing “personal items” to be signed by the president.

Richard Spencer, then-secretary of the Navy, sent a message to sailors and Marines last year telling them that they must remain apolitical.

“Sailors and Marines, along with the Department of the Navy (DON) Civilian Employees, have a long history of supporting and defending the Constitution of the United States,” Spencer wrote at the time.

“Now that election season is approaching, it is appropriate for us to remember that, as military professionals, we are an apolitical body and our members cannot participate in activities that could appear to imply sponsorship, approval, or endorsement of a political candidate, campaign, or cause.”

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