Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan.

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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Acting Defense Chief Reminds Rank and File to Steer Clear of Politics

Following recent controversies, Patrick Shanahan cites the Hatch Act and a department directive prohibiting certain partisan activities.

Acting Pentagon Chief Patrick Shanahan, named but not formally nominated by President Trump to become Secretary of Defense, on Tuesday issued a reminder notice to the department’s military and civilian workforce that their conduct must be “apolitical.”

“I call on leaders at all levels in the department to reinforce the apolitical nature of military and civilian service and professionalism, while ensuring all personnel remain free to exercise the responsibilities of citizenship as laws and regulations allow,” Shanahan wrote in a directive to all Defense personnel titled “Political Activities.” A second memo went to Pentagon leaders.

“Those of us privileged to serve our nation, in and out of uniform, in the DOD must be the epitome of American values and ethics,” he said, citing the demands on all federal employees under the Hatch Act and 2008 Defense Department directive 1344.10.

Civilians and their families may take part in some political activity and are encouraged to carry out “the “obligations of citizenship” Shanahan noted. “However, our policy and tradition also limit active partisan political activities or actions that could appear to imply DOD sponsorship, approval, or endorsement of a political candidate, campaign or cause.”

The reminder is his first official response to last month’s controversy when naval personnel aboard the USS John S. McCain destroyer were instructed by still-unnamed White House officials to ensure President Trump didn’t see the ship’s name during his Memorial Day weekend visit to the Seventh Fleet during a trip to Japan. Sailors whose uniforms carry the ship’s name were also prevented from attending ceremonies.

That was followed by news photos showing that airman on the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp wore shoulder patches during the president’s trip indirectly referencing Trump’s campaign slogan with the words “Make Aircrew Great Again.” That episode is under Navy review.

After Trump’s trip, Shanahan said, “There’s no room for politicizing the military,” though he did not announce any formal investigation. A spokesman for the Defense inspector general’s office told Government Executive the office couldn’t comment on whether it has opened its own probe into the possible violation of prohibited political activities.