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Kamala Harris didn’t break protocol, only past practice, in not returning military salutes

Vice President Kamala Harris boards Air Force Two as she departs Jacksonville, Fla., on March 22, 2021. (AP) Vice President Kamala Harris boards Air Force Two as she departs Jacksonville, Fla., on March 22, 2021. (AP)

Vice President Kamala Harris boards Air Force Two as she departs Jacksonville, Fla., on March 22, 2021. (AP)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher March 26, 2021

If Your Time is short

  • There is no official protocol that calls for presidents or vice presidents to return military salutes.

  • Some past vice presidents have done it.

In not returning salutes given to her by military personnel, Vice President Kamala Harris is breaking with recent practice, but not official protocol.

On March 19, a Harris spokesman posted a 20-second video clip of Harris walking up stairs to board Air Force Two as she departed Atlanta. Two members of the military honor guard saluted her, but she did not return the salute. 

A few days later, social media posts that included the clip called Harris’ action "disgraceful" and said she shows "zero respect" for the military. One added an audio clip from a country song in which the singer sings, "F--- you, b----."

A Fox News article that said Harris "repeatedly fails" to return salutes included video clips from March 15, March 16 and March 22. The article cited examples of salutes being returned by Joe Biden and Mike Pence when they served as vice president.

But while presidents and vice presidents saluting military personnel is a familiar sight, it’s not part of any official protocol.

Thomas Nichols, a national security affairs professor at the U.S. Naval War College, said on Twitter that President Ronald Reagan started the practice of a commander in chief returning salutes "as a matter of courtesy." But he said that the vice president "is a civilian who is not in the chain of command," and for Harris, it would "be incorrect for her to salute anyone."

The Task & Purpose military news website reported in 2014 that there is no regulation that requires presidents to salute the troops and that no presidents before Reagan did, not even military veterans such as Dwight Eisenhower, Theodore Roosevelt or Ulysses S. Grant.

Task & Purpose also published an article by one of its editors, a Marine veteran, about the Harris controversy. It reiterated that there is no requirement for the president, or the vice president, to return a salute. 

The point was also repeated by Pentagon spokesman John Kirby in response to reporter questions about the Harris controversy. He said each military service has specific requirements for salutes. 

Army Regulation 600–25, for example, states that the president, as the commander in chief, "will be saluted by Army personnel in uniform," but that civilian personnel "are not required to render the hand salute to military personnel or other civilian personnel." 

But Kirby said "there is no overarching instruction or regulation that requires the president or vice president to return hand salutes from members of the Armed Forces."

Some Americans still wish Harris would do what her predecessors did.

"It doesn’t matter if Kamala isn’t required to salute the troops," one Twitter user wrote. "She should salute anyway! How disrespectful!"

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Our Sources

Facebook, post, March 23, 2021, BonginoReport post, March 23, 2021

Fox News, "VP Harris repeatedly fails to salute military on Air Force Two, breaking with precedent," March 23, 2021

Twitter, Bernard Kerik tweet, March 22, 2021

Twitter, David Croom tweet, March 22, 2021

Twitter, Thomas Nichols tweet, March 23, 2021

Twitter, Peter Velz tweet, March 19, 2021

Twitter, tweet, March 24, 2021

YouTube, Action News Jax video of Kamala Harris arriving in Jacksonville, Fla., on March 22, 2021, posted March 22, 2021

YouTube, video of Kamala Harris departing Los Angeles on March 16, 2021, posted March 16, 2021

YouTube, The National video of Kamala Harris arriving March 15, 2021, in Las Vegas, posted March 16, 2021

Lead Stories, "Fact Check: Protocol Does NOT Require Vice President To Salute Military Personnel," March 24, 2021

Florida Times-Union, "Fact Check: Should presidents return salutes from the military?", April 15, 2016

Snopes, "Did Kamala Harris ‘Fail’ To Salute Military Officers?", March 24, 2021

U.S. News, "Pentagon: Vice Presidents Don’t Have to Return Salutes – Nor Do Presidents," March 24, 2021, "VERIFY: Explaining the saluting protocol of the vice president," March 25, 2021

Task & Purpose, "Sorry, the ‘Presidential Salute’ isn’t a real thing," Sept. 24, 2014

Task & Purpose, "No, the ‘presidential salute’ isn’t a thing — and neither is the ‘vice presidential salute,’" March 23, 2021

Army Regulation 600–25, "Salutes, Honors, and Courtesy," Sept. 10, 2019

Associated Press, "Vice presidents are not required to salute service members," March 24, 2021

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Kamala Harris didn’t break protocol, only past practice, in not returning military salutes