Trump Ad Featuring SecDef Esper, Gen. Milley Raises Legal Questions

The Trump reelection ad featured a photo with Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley
In this image released by the White House, President Donald Trump is joined by Vice President Mike Pence, second from left; National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, left; Secretary Mark Esper, second from right; and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, right, on Oct. 26, 2019, in the Situation Room of the White House monitoring developments in the U.S. Special Operations forces raid that took out Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The photo was used in a Trump campaign ad. (Shealah Craighead/White House via AP)

President Donald Trump's reelection campaign was involved in another controversy Tuesday over an online ad featuring Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley in what may be a breach of a Pentagon directive to avoid politics.

The Defense Department referred questions to the Trump campaign on whether Esper and Milley were aware that a group photo with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence had been used for an ad about mail-in ballots.

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The White House also referred questions to the campaign, which had not responded as of Wednesday morning.

However, Politico, citing a defense official, reported that the ad went up without Milley's knowledge or consent.

The ad shows Trump, Pence, Esper and a uniformed Milley seated a table in what appears to be a photo taken in the White House Situation Room on Oct. 29, 2019, when a U.S. raid in Syria killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Text on the photo reads, "President Trump wants you to request your ballot." There is a tagline saying "Paid for by Donald J. Trump for President, Inc." Clicking on the ad leads to a voter sign-up page.

The ad went up Monday after Milley gave a forceful defense of his own and the military's commitment to avoid any hint of involvement in politics and campaigns.

In an interview with NPR that aired early Monday, Milley said the military has a long and cherished tradition dating back to George Washington of remaining apolitical.

"We have established a very long 240-year tradition of an apolitical military that does not get involved in domestic politics," he said.

In a Feb. 5 memo, Esper also called on service members to "uphold DoD's longstanding tradition of remaining apolitical as we carry out our official responsibilities."

He added, "Maintaining the hard-earned trust and confidence of the American people requires us to avoid any action that could imply endorsement of a political party, political candidate or campaign by any element of the Department of Defense."

DoD Directive 1344.10 bars service members from participating in any partisan political campaign, election, cause or issue while in uniform.

The issue follows a complaint by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that his image and words were used in a Trump campaign video ad without his knowledge.

In a statement to CNN, Fauci said, "The comments attributed to me without my permission in the GOP campaign ad were taken out of context from a broad statement I made months ago about the efforts of federal public health officials [to combat COVID-19]."

The issue of troops being involved in campaigns also surfaced during the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, both held in August.

At the DNC, during a roll call of the states and territories, two Army Reserve soldiers in uniform appeared in the background during the introduction of the American Samoa delegation. The two soldiers were cleared by a DoD investigation, but a supervisor will face discipline, according to a report last week.

At the RNC, questions arose about the propriety of two Marines saluting as Trump passed through a White House door to an event. The White House and the Marine Corps said the two were only performing their official duties.

Both Esper and Milley came under fire in early June for participating in a walk from the White House across Lafayette Square to St. John's Episcopal Church, where Trump posed for photos with a Bible after protesters were forcefully cleared from the area.

Milley later said it was wrong for him to participate in the walk and apologized.

"I should not have been there," he said in a recorded message to a National Defense University graduation ceremony. "My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics."

Esper, who had joined Trump in another photo op, said he wasn't aware that the group would be stopping at the church.

Trump later said he wasn't concerned that Esper and Milley might have had misgivings. "I mean, if that's the way they feel, I think that's fine," he said in a June 12 Fox News interview. "I have good relationships with the military."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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