Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Published with permission from Media Matters for America.

Veterans’ groups are criticizing the National Rifle Association for releasing a pro-Donald Trump ad that was apparently filmed at a national cemetery in violation of government policy, calling for the ad to be taken down and accusing the gun group of “using our dead to score political points.”

The ad, launched Thursday by the NRA Political Victory Fund, features veteran Mark Geist –- a survivor of the 2012 Benghazi terror attacks — as he walks in and stands in front of a national cemetery; the graves of military personnel are featured prominently.

During the ad, Geist attacks the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, saying, “Hillary as President? No thanks. I served in Benghazi. My friends didn’t make it. They did their part. Do yours.” The ad ends with a graphic supporting Trump.

As ABC News reported, the ad is in apparent violation of Department of Veterans Affairs’ “strict prohibition of filming campaign ads on national cemetery property that contains the graves of military personnel, veterans and their spouses.”

Jessica Schiefer, public affairs officer for the National Cemetery Administration, told Media Matters the NRA did not seek permission to film at a national cemetery, and that they would have rejected the request had they received one.

“To date, the Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration (NCA) has not received or approved any filming requests of this nature,” she said via email. “NCA did not receive a request from the NRA to film the subject advertisement. If we had received such a request, we would have denied it based on the partisan content. Partisan activities are prohibited on national cemetery grounds as they are not compatible with preserving the dignity and tranquility of the national cemeteries as national shrines.”

She added, “As always, our Veterans, their families and survivors are our top priority. To maintain the sanctity and decorum of VA National Cemeteries as national shrines, our filming policy states that filming may not be used for the expression of partisan or political viewpoints, or for uses that are (or may be interpreted as) an endorsement of a commercial entity.”

NRA officials did not respond to several requests for comment, but told ABC News the ad was filmed outside of the cemetery, although they declined to reveal where exactly it was made. (The NRA’s attempt to claim the ad was filmed “outside” the cemetery makes little sense, considering Geist is shown walking among headstones.)

In addition to the apparent violation of government policy, the NRA ad has triggered outrage among some veterans groups, who contend it is improper.

“Don’t use our dead to score political points,” Joe Davis, a Veterans of Foreign Wars national spokesman and an Air Force veteran of Desert Storm, told Media Matters. “We fought for everybody’s First Amendment rights and everything, but we don’t want any candidate using our dead to score political points.”

Jon Soltz, an Iraq War Veteran and chairman of VoteVets.org, responded with a statement that said, “This ad should be taken down immediately. It is insensitive to those buried at the cemetery — most, if not all, of whom died before Benghazi, and many of whom may not have been NRA supporters. Further, it violates Veterans Affairs policy. It should be taken down.”

Despite apparently violating government policy, there is no indication the NRA plans to pull the advertisement, which is reportedly being backed by $2 million and is scheduled to run in several key battleground states over the next two weeks.

In contrast to the NRA, several previous political ads that aired images and footage from national cemeteries were either altered or removed. In 1999, Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) presidential campaign aired an ad featuring unauthorized footage filmed at Arlington National cemetery — the campaign apologized and recut the ad to remove the footage. More recently, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) pulled a 2014 ad that was filmed at a North Dakota veterans’ cemetery.

Photo by expertinfantry/ CC BY 2.0

At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.