New Chairman to the Joint Chiefs: Stay Out of Politics

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President Donald Trump, Gen. Mark Milley and Vice President Mike Pence salute a formation of U.S. Army soldiers taking part in the 58th Presidential Inauguration Parade in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2017. (U.S. Army Reserve photo/Michel Sauret)
President Donald Trump, Gen. Mark Milley and Vice President Mike Pence salute a formation of U.S. Army soldiers taking part in the 58th Presidential Inauguration Parade in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2017. (U.S. Army Reserve photo/Michel Sauret)

When Gen. Mark Milley met with the Pentagon's top brass last week just after becoming the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, his message was clear: politics and the military don't mix.

The top Marine, Army, Navy and Air Force generals were told in their first official meeting with Milley that they need to be conscious of their actions while heading into what's likely to be a tumultuous election year.

Stay outside the fray and remain apolitical, Milley told them last week, according to an account Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger gave reporters.

Politics are "hyper-elevated" right now, Berger said. And if military leaders are heading into a potentially political environment -- for example, a stop with a member of Congress along the U.S.-Mexico border where troops are assisting after the president declared a national emergency there -- Milley said they need to know the rules.

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Milley's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about why the chairman sought to get that message across early on in his new role. The talk with senior leaders came a week before Milley, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other top Pentagon leaders had dinner with President Donald Trump at the White House.

 

Berger stressed that the reminder for troops to stay out of politics "isn't anything new." Military leaders have similar conversations every election season, he said, and with 40,000 new Marines entering the Corps each year, it's necessary to talk with junior personnel about what political activities are and aren't allowed.

But the Pentagon has been pulled into several political firestorms in recent years -- the most recent being a subpoena for documents from congressional Democrats as they move forward with an impeachment inquiry on Trump. This week, several recently retired officers have also spoken out about Trump's decision to remove some troops from Syria, where Turkey has launched an attack on the American-allied Kurds.

Trump has also made overtly political speeches to military troops aboard ships and bases, and troops have been photographed having him sign ballcaps with campaign slogans or caught on camera cheering when he makes degrading comments about members of the media.

Berger said he's not concerned about politics infiltrating the ranks though. Captains and first sergeants talk to their Marines about the rules, and they're told not to cross certain lines.

Just like Milley did with the Joint Chiefs, Berger said, "we talk about it."

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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