After 'MAGA' Patches, McCain Scandal, Navy Issues New Memo on Political Activities

President Donald J. Trump puts on a flight jacket during a Troop Talk, Nov. 5, 2017, at Yokota Air Base, Japan. (U.S. Air Force photo/Donald Hudson)
President Donald J. Trump puts on a flight jacket during a Troop Talk, Nov. 5, 2017, at Yokota Air Base, Japan. (U.S. Air Force photo/Donald Hudson)

The Navy secretary is reminding military personnel in his charge that they must remain apolitical, less than a month after the sea services fielded a request from White House officials to hide a ship named for one of President Donald Trump's political rivals, and sailors were photographed sporting patches that mimicked a presidential campaign slogan.

An administrative message released on Friday warns sailors and Marines against activities that "could appear to imply sponsorship, approval or endorsement of a political candidate, campaign or cause."

"Sailors and Marines ... have a long history of supporting and defending the Constitution of the United States," Navy Secretary Richard Spencer wrote. "Now that election season is approaching, it is appropriate for us to remember that, as military professionals, we are an apolitical body."

Secretary Spencer issued the message to reinforce former Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan's June memos on political activities and to provide guidance ahead of the upcoming election season, Cmdr. Sarah Higgins, Spencer's spokeswoman said.

Recent events during Trump's visit to a U.S. naval base in Japan did not affect Spencer's decision to release the message, she added.

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Trump's visit caused an uproar after The Wall Street Journal reported that White House officials wanted the guided-missile destroyer John McCain out of sight when Trump arrived. The ship, which was involved in a fatal collision in 2017, is named for the late Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, along with his Navy admiral father and grandfather. McCain, a longtime senator and Vietnam war hero who was an outspoken critic of Trump, recently died of brain cancer.

Sailors attending Trump's speech were also photographed wearing red patches that featuring an illustration of Trump and the words "Make Aircrew Great Again." Navy officials said in May that they were reviewing whether are in violation of Defense Department policy.

That review remains ongoing, Lt. Cmdr. Tim Gorman, a spokesman for U.S. Pacific Fleet, told Military.com on Tuesday.

Navy officials denied the Journal’s initial report that a tarp was hung on the McCain to obscure the name of the ship. Trump later said a "well-meaning" staffer made the request "because they thought I didn't like" McCain.

Shanahan, who stepped down last week amid reports of family troubles, said he would gather more information about the incident to determine how service members responded to the White House request.

Before leaving the Pentagon, Shanahan was also reportedly considering sending formal guidance to military units to prevent similar problems in the future. Shanahan's chief of staff was also told to tell the White House military office that the Defense Department would not be politicized.

Spencer wrote that he remains confident sailors and Marines will participate in the political process without violating federal laws or regulations.

"Please continue to be the epitome of American values and ethics as you serve our nation, our Navy and our Marine Corps," he said.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to clarify the Navy’s response to White House requests to have the McCain out of sight for the president’s visit.

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

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