Marines at Trump resort did not break rules on politicking in uniform

by Vern Evans

Marine Corps officials said a viral photo of four uniformed service members posing at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate did not take place during a political fundraiser, but instead at an approved non-profit event without any connection to the Republican presidential nominee.

In a statement posted on social media over the weekend, service officials said the Marines — reserve members of the 4th Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company — were in attendance on April 11 at the Florida resort to serve as a color guard for a gala hosted by the Grey Team, a nonprofit organization focused on preventing military suicides.

“The request was reviewed by Marine Forces Reserve Community Relations and deemed eligible for support,” service leaders said in a statement. “The event was open to the public and helped raise awareness about military and veteran suicides.

“The event was neither a political fundraiser, nor was the 45th president of the United States in attendance.”

Mar-a-Lago is the site of numerous non-political events as well as a hub for Trump’s campaign operations.

Despite approval for Marines to participate in the Grey Team event, photos of attendees posing alongside the uniformed troops at Trump’s well-known property almost immediately raised concerns that military personnel may have violated Defense Department rules about participation in political events.

The use of uniformed service members to support non-profit fundraisers and other high-profile events is commonplace, although such appearances do require a review by senior leaders to ensure rules regarding the insinuation of military endorsement are not violated.

Sensitivities regarding uniformed troops’ roles in many public events are often heightened during election years.

Defense Department rules prohibit service members from appearing in uniform at rallies, protests, or other political events where they could be appearing to be representing the armed services. Troops are free to make campaign contributions or volunteer on behalf of a candidate, but they cannot undertake those activities in uniform or while on duty.

Last month, National Guard officials launched a probe into whether the Texas adjutant general ran afoul of military politicking rules by appearing in uniform alongside former Trump during a campaign event at the southern U.S. border, even though the work appeared to fall under his specific state duties.

Both Trump and President Joe Biden received criticism for the appearance of uniformed military personnel during their nominating conventions in 2020, although no troops involved faced any discipline.

Pentagon leaders updated their rules regarding service members’ participation in political events in 2020. Multiple commands have reposted that guidance in recent months, ahead of the presidential campaign this fall.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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