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Trump campaign ad targeting mail-in voters, featuring Esper and Milley, raises ethics questions

The Pentagon’s top civilian and uniformed officials have each made public attempts to keep their organization out of 2020′s fraught election cycle, but a campaign advertisement circulating online has them front and center.

An ad targeting would-be mail-in voters, President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign features a photo of the president flanked by Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Defense Department policy forbids service members from participating in any campaign activities or materials while in uniform, a point Esper reinforced earlier this year in a memo to the force.

"As citizens, we exercise our right to vote and participate in government,” he wrote. “However, as public servants who have taken an oath to defend these principles, we uphold DoD’s longstanding tradition of remaining apolitical as we carry out our official responsibilities.”

The static ad raises questions about the ethics of senior military officials appearing to campaign for the president.

Trump campaign representatives did not respond to a request for comment on the ad.

A spokeswoman for the Joint Staff, speaking on background, deferred to Milley’s recent comments on his apolitical role as an adviser to the president. However, a defense official later told Politico that “the campaign didn’t seek approval from Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley to use his image in the ad.

"This photo, like many others, was not used with [Milley’s] knowledge or consent,” said the official, who requested anonymity to speak to Politico about a sensitive topic.

Esper’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

The ad appeared in an online news story as recently as Monday, the same day NPR aired an exclusive interview with Milley, in which he went into detail about his apolitical view of his position.

“We don’t swear an oath of allegiance to an individual, a king, a queen, a president or anything else,” he said. “We don’t swear an oath of allegiance to a country, for that matter. We don’t swear an oath of allegiance to a flag, a tribe, a religion or any of that. We swear an oath to an idea, or a set of ideas and values, that are embedded in our Constitution.”

In June, Milley publicly apologized for his appearance in Trump’s walk across Lafayette Square to pose for photos in front of a church partially burned during protests.

“And we have established a very long 240-year tradition of an apolitical military that does not get involved in domestic politics,” Milley added. “And so I think that that’s an important principle to adhere to, to continue to adhere to and we will adhere to it.”

Two days after that photo opportunity, Esper briefed at the Pentagon, making his own bid to remain, though politically-appointed, the head of an apolitical organization.

“I’ve worked very hard to keep the department out of politics, which is very hard these days, as we move closer and closer to an election,” Esper told reporters then, acknowledging that the president’s policies are motivated by a desire to be re-elected. “And remaining apolitical means that there are times to speak up and times not to.”

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