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Guard officials probing Texas general’s appearance at Trump rally

National Guard officials are looking into whether the Texas adjutant general ran afoul of military politicking rules by appearing in uniform alongside former President Donald Trump during a campaign event Thursday.

Maj. Gen. Thomas Suelzer, who has led the Texas Military Department for the last two years, stood in uniform beside Trump during a televised speech in Eagle Pass, Texas, after the former president’s visit to the southern U.S. border.

The move prompted criticism on social media for violating strict military rules regarding appearances in uniform at political rallies and events.

Suelzer served in the active duty Air Force for 10 years, and the Air Force Reserve for seven more, before joining the Texas Air National Guard. His current post is a political appointment, in contrast to nonpartisan Defense Department leadership roles.

Does the National Guard have to follow Pentagon orders? Sometimes.

National Guard Bureau officials confirmed Friday they have received multiple queries on Suelzer’s appearance with Trump and are reviewing the incident. Air Force officials referred all questions to the Texas Military Department, which has not issued any public statements on the matter and did not return requests for comment.

Defense Department officials, particularly in election years, periodically issue reminders that federal rules prohibit servicemembers from appearing in uniform at rallies, protests, or other political events where they could be appearing to be representing the armed services.

Troops are free to make campaign contributions or volunteer on behalf of a candidate, but they cannot undertake those activities in uniform or while on duty.

But Suelzer’s responsibility to adhere to those rules is less clear. Guard members in state active duty status aren’t subject to federal rules, even though they are allowed to wear their regular uniforms.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott launched Operation Lone Star in 2021 to crack down on the number of migrants who attempt to cross the border into the U.S. Suelzer oversees that mission, and frequently issues statements on the work — and the political fights behind the policies — alongside the governor and other state officials.

Abbott was also on hand for Trump’s immigration event, and praised the former president for his border security policies.

Heidi Urben, a professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service who has studied military rules on politicking, said that while Suelzer’s appearance may not explicitly violate military rules, “it’s a violation of the military’s norm of nonpartisanship.”

She said the logic behind the regulations is to ensure that military members aren’t inferring official sponsorship or approval of a candidate or group’s views.

“From a practical standpoint, violating the norm is just as damaging as violating a rule,” she said. “Survey research shows that the American public doesn’t draw meaningful distinctions between active duty and retired generals, let alone distinguishing across components.”

“Incidents such as this only add to the public’s confusion, or worse, continue to give the impression that the military is a partisan actor.”

In 2020, then Defense Secretary Mark Esper issued a memo ahead of the presidential election warning all service members that “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.”

Both Trump and President Joe Biden received criticism for the appearance of uniformed military personnel during their nominating conventions in 2020. Veterans running for Congress have received similar rebukes for using old service photos in their campaign materials without specific disclaimers, but those incidents rarely result in any real punishment.

Urben warned that military personnel need to be aware of events they attend and the potential public reaction from those appearances.

“Because politicians in both parties seem unable to resist the temptation to use the military as props or a backdrop during partisan speeches, it falls on military officials to exercise good judgment and uphold the spirit and intent of the norm of nonpartisanship,” she said.

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