White House officials defended the presence of two uniformed Marines at President Joe Biden’s speech in Philadelphia on Thursday night, dismissing assertions that the move amounted to politicizing the military.
Biden’s remarks ― delivered from Independence Hall and focused on “the battle for the soul of the nation” ― were attacked by conservative groups who viewed it as a political event criticizing the Republican party, rather than an apolitical address in keeping with his role as commander in chief.
The president called out “MAGA Republicans” in his speech and said those GOP supporters “embrace anger, they thrive on chaos, they live, not in the light of truth, but in the shadow of lies.”
As Biden spoke, two uniformed Marines stood at attention behind him, visible in numerous TV shots.
On Friday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the speech was “standing up for democracy, not political” and said the presence of the Marines was intentional.
“[It] was to demonstrate the deep and abiding respect the president has for these service members and the unique role our independent military plays in defending our democracy, no matter which party is in power,” she said.
“It is not abnormal. It is actually normal for presidents from either side of the aisle to give speeches in front of members of the military, including President Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush. It is not an unusual sight.”
Presidents frequently hold events and deliver national speeches at military bases and before crowds of service members, but typically focused on new government initiatives or priorities. The White House traditionally has avoided such scenes for campaign or political party events.
Trump frequently was criticized for blurring that line between political events and nonpartisan White House activities.
When Trump hosted Republican convention events at the White House in 2020 (a move that critics said violated rules about campaigning on federal property), he received similar criticism for showing two uniformed Marines in a video extolling Republican priorities and criticizing Democratic lawmakers.
Defense Department officials opted not to open an investigation into the incident.
Under military rules, troops are prohibited from participating in political campaigns while in uniform or performing similar actions that could give the impression the military favors one set of candidates over another.
Biden administration officials were adamant that the Thursday speech was not on behalf of any specific campaign or set of candidates for this fall’s midterm elections.
“This was an opportunity in prime time to talk directly to the American people, and to talk with a clear voice to talk about what is happening in our country today,” Jean-Pierre said. “It was about our values as a country, about our democracy as a country.
“And he believes the men and women who wear the uniform and protect us every day, protect this country every day, that’s what they fight for as well.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.