President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump took their first trip to a combat zone over Christmas, celebrating the holiday with service members by taking photos and signing the iconic "Make America Great Again" hats of the 2016 campaign. Though the president has defended his actions, Trump signing troops' MAGA hats in Iraq might have actually been a violation of military policy.
There are a couple different ways the hat-signing appears questionable, stemming from a basic Department of Defense (DoD) guideline that military members should remain neutral in political matters. First off, according to the DoD Standards of Conduct, all military members should "avoid the inference that their political activities imply or appear to imply DoD sponsorship, approval, or endorsement of a political candidate, campaign, or cause." On top of that, military personnel are not allowed to attend political events or activities while in uniform.
Technically, the president's Christmas visit was not a political event, so the rule about being in uniform is more flexible. Additionally, Captain Christopher Bowyer-Meeder, a U.S. Air Force spokesperson for Europe, clarified to CNN that there's absolutely nothing stopping military members from bringing personal items for a president to sign. According to Rear Adm. John Kirby, a former spokesman under President Obama, however, asking for a president's autograph on campaign merchandise could be in conflict with the "implying endorsement" guideline.
"It is in fact a campaign slogan, that is a campaign item, and it is completely inappropriate for the troops to do this," Kirby told CNN.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told CNN that the service members brought their own MAGA hats to be signed — the president did not distribute them. President Trump lashed out on Twitter Thursday afternoon, accusing CNN of misreporting that fact, and defending his decision to grant autographs — though to be clear, the issue is more with military personnel asking for autographs, not the president giving them.
Critics of the CNN article pointed to President Obama — then candidate Obama — similarly signing autographs for service members in Kuwait in 2008. In a video of the event, Obama appeared to be signing photographs and newspapers, not campaign merch.
Less than a day after the controversy erupted, Donald Trump Jr. jumped to his father's defense as well, tweeting, "Love watching the #fakenews outrage about @realDonaldTrump supposedly bringing #maga merchandise to Iraq to sign for troops stationed there. Turns out it was the troop’s own personal belongings that they had with them already!" Pulling his father's 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, into the mix, Trump Jr. added, "Wonder how many #imwithher hats there are in Iraq?"
For Kirby, the larger issue with the optics of hat-signing is the increasingly unclear distinction between the military and political arenas. "Trump has blurred the line between the office of the presidency and the campaign to such a degree that it is making it much more difficult for troops to make that distinction on their own," he told CNN. "It's bad enough that Trump doesn't see a problem with signing campaign paraphernalia at a military base, maybe even more so that some of our troops are OK with it."