No way Biden should’ve used Marines as props for his hyper-political speech
President Biden’s speech Thursday has been criticized for its attacks on his political opponents as threats to the nation. However, for some of us, the optics were equally glaring, with the prominently placed Marines framing the president. The use of the Marines and the Marine Band raised concerns given the address’s clearly political purpose. Indeed, the networks didn’t see it as an address to the nation and refused to give the White House primetime slots.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre assured the media that “it’s not a political speech,” but it was unabashedly political in its attacks on “MAGA Republicans” and President Donald Trump. Even CNN flagged concern over the use of the Marines, and CNN chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins stated the obvious that “it was a very political speech,” a “full-frontal attack” on his political foes.
The optics instantly became a source of internet chatter with the weird red background that made the president look like he was giving a stump speech from Dante’s Inferno. Indeed, it almost had that High Chancellor Adam Sutler look from “V for Vendetta.”
However, it was the use of the Marine guards that most stood out — framing the president as he declared Trump supporters a threat to democracy, denounced “MAGA Republicans” 13 times and repeated references to his past and possible future political opponent, Trump.
The United States has long drawn a line between the work of federal employees in public service and using them for political purposes. The 1939 Hatch Act was meant to curtail the political activities of civilian federal employees.
The Marine Corps expressly forbids personnel from being used or participating in political events. Army officials stress that their rules bar such involvement because “actual or perceived partisanship could undermine the legitimacy of the military profession and department.”
In Department of Defense Directive 1344.10, the long list of prohibited involvement includes attending “partisan political events as an official representative of the Armed Forces.” The services expressly bar the wearing of uniforms at political speeches “when an inference of official sponsorship … may be drawn.”
There are obviously gray areas for a president who’s necessarily accompanied by members of the military. Moreover, drawing the line between what is a presidential and what is a political speech is often difficult. Presidents are politicians and often use official statements to slam their critics or opponents. Such events often have color guards and military bands.
The enforcement of such rules are also rather anemic. Even violations of the Hatch Act are routinely brushed aside by presidents.
Yet what is interesting is the relative silence of most in the media on the use of these Marines as virtual nutcracker props for a political speech. The media overwhelmingly condemned Trump for his picture in front of St. John’s Church after the clearing of Lafayette Park in 2020. Later, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley apologized for being in the photo, declaring, “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”
Milley has been silent on not just the use of the Marine Band but individual Marines at a speech in which Biden denounced political opponents as threats to “the very foundations of our republic” and part of what he has repeatedly called a “semi-fascist” movement. (Apparently, nothing says you’re against fascism as much as labeling your opponents enemies of the state with Marines on either side of you.)
The message to other military personnel, particularly other Marines, is that support for the president’s opponents is considered a threat to the constitutional Republic.
The Washington Post objected to the use of the Marine Band at the White House when Trump was viewed as giving a political speech. Others, like Alice Hunt Friend of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the use of the band at the White House event was a “big violation,” since “Americans who see uniformed military personnel at partisan political functions may assume the military has a partisan identity. Presidents running for re-election always have to take extra care to keep their military aides out of their campaign activities.”
Such voices have been largely silent after the Biden speech. There is clearly a need for greater clarity in the use of the military at such speeches, but Biden’s use of these Marines as props was beyond the pale.
Winston Churchill once said that it is “always dangerous” for military personnel to mix with politics because “they enter a sphere in which the values are quite different from those to which they have hitherto been accustomed.” That was never more evident as two young Marines stood at attention as their president accused millions of their fellow citizens of being enemies of the constitutional Republic. They deserved better.
Jonathan Turley is an attorney and professor at George Washington University Law School.