On Saturday, President Trump spoke to U.S. Navy servicemen at the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford, the military's new $13 billion aircraft carrier. While doing so, he told naval officers to "call that congressman and call that senator" to lobby for more defense funding and, less relevantly, the repeal of Obamacare. Because both of those are policy priorities for the GOP, this was essentially Trump ordering the military to pledge allegiance to Republicans and become involved in partisan congressional politics, which many saw as a startling breach of civilian/military norms.
"We need Congress to do its job and pass the budget that provides for higher, stable, and predictable funding levels for our military needs that our fighting men and women deserve," Trump said at the ceremony. "I don't mind getting a little hand, so call that congressman and call that senator and make sure you get it. And by the way, you can also call those senators to make sure you get health care."
Although Trump's words are open to some degree of interpretation, it sure looked like he was ordering service members to take a political stand on domestic policies. As Phillip Carter at Slate points out, that's both a breach of historical precedent and, depending on how the text is interpreted, possibly a violation of Defense Department rules. (From a legal standpoint, though, the president's authority trumps that of Pentagon regulations, so it's doubtful that Trump committed a crime here.)
"Trump’s verbal command in Norfolk, Virginia, incites the assembled troops to discard centuries of U.S. military ethics and break long-standing military rules," Carter writes. "This is what leaders do in banana republics: Instruct the people with guns to join the political fray."
Defense Department regulations operate on the same basic principle. Citing "the traditional concept that members on active duty should not engage in partisan political activity, DoD Directive 1344.10 contains a litany of political activities that service members may not engage in "as a representative of the armed forces."
It's that last, ambiguous clause that's key. If the president tells a service member to lobby Congress for a bill, and that member interprets it as a literal order from the commander-in-chief and calls their representative, is that person acting "as a representative of the armed forces"? Or are they just an American exercising their Constitutional right to political involvement who also happens to be a service member?
The answer is unclear, and Trump's comments aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford may well not violate any laws or regulations. What is clear, though, is that the U.S. military has a longstanding tradition of not involving itself in domestic political affairs, and Trump's comments certainly violate the spirit of that tradition.