Hilarity ensued this Christmas when President Donald Trump along with the first lady made a surprise visit to the troops in Iraq. Proving that it is hard to keep anything a secret these days, watchful aviation enthusiasts noted Air Force One cutting across the Atlantic on Christmas night before veering towards the Middle East after a brief stop at Ramstein Air Force base in Germany. For the past two years of the Trump administration, the President has been hounded by many in the press, as well as the public, for not visiting soldiers deployed abroad like President Bush and President Obama did.
These types of VIP visits to military bases overseas are quite disruptive, and the end result is usually a horse and pony show, but to the press and to at least some deployed soldiers, they are meaningful perhaps as a token gesture that their commander-in-chief has not forgotten about them while they are away from their families during the Christmas holiday.
After writing article after article about how Trump failed to visit the troops on or before Christmas eve like past presidents, some members of the press were apoplectic when he actually did. First came the stories about soldiers asking to have their “make America great again” hats signed when the President visited. Jennifer Epstein of Bloomberg posted some alarmed tweets including pictures of four airmen holding MAGA hats and one with a Trump banner. Apparently this was some kind of big scoop, a picture of four airmen waving MAGA hats. A slew of articles about the MAGA hats were soon to follow, journalists pointing out that service members may have been breaking DOD regulations by participating in politics while in uniform.
There is something awfully strange taking place when members of the free press are making arguments like this, trying to shut down if not restrict free speech, in this case political speech that they may not agree with. American journalists have fought long hard battles in order to maintain a free and open press, unhindered by undue pressure from the federal government. To cite arcane and obscure DOD regulations that restrict political speech or participation is bizarre.
Every time a journalist gets an active duty soldier to talk to them without going through a Public Affairs Officer, they are almost certainly in violation of DOD regulations. Developing these types of sources are critical to anyone trying to report honestly and with integrity on the US military. Service members speak to journalists at great personal and professional risk, trusting that we will keep them anonymous, and not run around tattletaling on them because they spoke out of turn, according to some banal DOD regulation. Don’t hold your breath waiting for these journalists to write about how their sources are wrong for talking to them.
The Air Force responded to claims the press made alleging that said regulations had been violated saying, “There is no rule against Airmen bringing personal items to be signed by the president.”
Next came the articles about Trump’s photo-op with Navy SEALs once he arrived in Iraq. The SEALs posed with the President and the first lady while wearing body armor, helmets, and night vision goggles, but without their weapons. The media was livid.
Some complained that it was ridiculous for SEALs to be in full kit in the chow hall for a photo-op, which it is, but this is hardly anything new or unique. Newsweek went as far as to claim that by posting video of the photo-op on Twitter, that President Trump had just exposed a covert deployment of Navy SEALs to Iraq. Again, this is an odd claim for journalists to make as they often expose covert and clandestine deployments. The Hatch Act, related to government officials revealing classified information does not apply to the President who can declassify information at will, so the point is moot to begin with.
Furthermore, Navy SEALs and other SOF soldiers deployed to Iraq are not “covert.” Only the CIA conducts covert operations. The military conducts clandestine operations, but deployments to Iraq are not even that, they are Title 10 operations which are publicly announced. Criticisms also emerged that the SEALs did not have their faces obscured, but the US military is not the “little green men” that Russia deployed to East Ukraine wearing balaclavas. American soldiers do not operate under a covered status like CIA officers, and DOD routinely publishes unredacted photos of SOF soldiers on .gov websites nearly every day.
The breathless, petty reporting on Trump’s holiday visit did much to expose a very transparent agenda amongst news editors and journalists. The same outlets that bemoaned Trump’s failure to visit the troops quickly criticized him when he did. The press, quite suddenly, became very concerned with military operational security (OPSEC) despite their reporting on and exposing of actual covert and clandestine operations. NEWSREP has also reported on classified military operations when they are newsworthy.
The Trump administration has plenty of flaws and there are legitimate reasons to be concerned with some of the directions our country is heading in. However, a boring photo-op in Iraq simply is not one of them.