What if Donald Trump ran for re-election and nobody noticed? So far, that seems to be the case, which might be the start to 2023 that nobody predicted. Today, Elon Musk has assumed the role of main-character-on-Twitter, minus political aspirations, which means Elon gets all the coverage. Even if Trump returned to Twitter, I’m not sure he would be able to wrest away the spotlight from Musk the Showman.

I mention all this because if Donald Trump does not win the Republican nomination, it seems likely to go to Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, who, according to a recent Quinnipiac public opinion poll is running even with Trump. This is despite lacking the name recognition or having even launched a presidential campaign. Other polls see DeSantis crushing Trump in a head-to-head matchup. All this merits at least a glance because DeSantis is a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve. Which at least raises the question: If Ron DeSantis runs for president against Joe Biden, the commander-in-chief…well, how exactly would that work?


First, it’s worth examining the general rules for how military service members are supposed to engage in politics more broadly.

For active duty members of the armed services, the rules are cut and dry. Basically, you can vote, and you can donate to political parties or candidates—and that’s it. You can’t run for political office, and you can’t lead a political campaign, even secretly. You can’t start a political party. You can’t lead a political party. You can’t speak to a political party (even out of uniform, though you can attend a rally, but leave the uniform at home). And no matter what, do not speak on behalf of the military or your unit or branch.

If you are getting the impression that your options are slim, you are absolutely correct. The exception to this are “non-political” seats in government. You can run for dog catcher. You can also run for school board, which is probably the most political office in all of government, so I’m not sure what happened there.

Just ask Spenser Rapone, who wrote the words “Communists will win” in his service cap, which he revealed at his 2018 graduation from West Point. (They let anyone in these days.) A photographer caught the image, and that was that: other-than-honorable discharge. Or Gary Stein, the Marine who went on Facebook in 2012 and called Barack Obama a “domestic enemy.”


The rules, though, do not always apply evenly. Look, military life is a pretty sweet deal and retirement is even better. Nobody will remember that you took some Very Bold Stance in 2024, but you will definitely remember when you’re working at Walmart when you are 80 because you got an other-than-honorable after 18 years.

Does this apply to retirees? Sort of, but mostly not. Though they still fall under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, no one has been prosecuted for making politically charged statements against a politician in a hundred years. Retirees cannot appear at political rallies in uniform. But if you ask me—and you should, because I am a writer on the internet—that pension is so good, and way better than driving for Uber at 75.


When it comes to reservists, things get a little weird. Members of the Guard and Reserve can run for office. They can participate in rallies. They can run or participate in political campaigns. The three big rules are: 1. You cannot do any of this in uniform. 2. You cannot give the impression that you are acting on behalf of the military. 3. You cannot do this while on orders.

Number 3 is the interesting part. Say you are running for Congress and get called to active duty. Your communications with your campaign have to stop, even secretly. No speeches, no social media posts, no nothing. You are essentially an unperson at that point, politically. Once your orders are over, however, you can jump right back into the fray—but not one day earlier.


Which leads us to Lieutenant Commander Ron DeSantis. In his case, if he runs for president, he does so as the governor of Florida and commander of its National Guard—not as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve. His campaign literature can include a photo of him in uniform, and discuss his service, but it must make clear he is on reserve status. He must also make clear that the discussion and photographs do not imply an endorsement by the Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.

He may also not make photographs of him in uniform the centerpiece of his campaign or campaign material. If he is called to extended active duty—that is, longer than 270 days, he must either resign from elected office, or retire from military service (though the Secretary of the Navy could give him permission to remain in uniform until the orders are up).

This is all outlined in Department of Defense Directive 1344.10, though various states have their own caveats.

If elected president, DeSantis would necessarily resign his military commission, though upon leaving office, Congress could restore his rank. The last time such a restoration happened was after Dwight D. Eisenhower completed his second term as president. The circumstances were a bit different, and while DeSantis’s tenure as a military lawyer has been honorable, it is a far cry from being a five-star general and Supreme Allied Commander. And it is hard to imagine a former president mustering for drill weekend.


Related News

David Brown is a regular contributor to ClearanceJobs. His most recent book, THE MISSION (Custom House, 2021), is now available in bookstores everywhere in hardcover and paperback. He can be found online at https://www.dwb.io.