Fact Check

President Obama's Cell Phone Salute

Images show President Obama disembarking from Marine One with a cell phone or coffee cup in his hand.

Published Oct 15, 2012

Images show President Obama disembarking from Marine One with a cell phone or coffee cup in his hand.

This image of President Obama talking on a cell phone and simultaneously saluting the military honor guard attendant at the landing of his aircraft while disembarking from Marine One (the call sign of any U.S. Marine Corps aircraft carrying the President, but generally used to refer to a helicopter operated by the HMX-1 squadron) received wide circulation in October 2012. It is a genuine photograph which was taken on 29 January 2010 upon President Obama's arrival in Baltimore.

This photograph was commonly circulated in tandem with a picture of President George W. Bush disembarking from an aircraft and saluting while holding his Scottish Terrier, Barney, in one arm:

In September 2014, similar videos were circulated showing President Obama disembarking from Marine One in New York with a coffee cup in his hand and the following commentary:

If there was ever any doubt how this Commander in Chief really feels in his heart about our men and women in uniform, this should seal the deal. We have warriors engaged in harm’s way, and he does THIS? The latte salute. And he has the nerve to publish it on his Instagram account. Disgraceful.

According to standard military protocol, the President of the United States does not return salutes from uniformed military personnel because, although the President holds the title of Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. armed forces, he is not himself a member of the military, nor does he wear a uniform. The tradition of U.S. presidents' regularly returning salutes is a fairly recent one which began with the administration of President Ronald Reagan in 1981:

Barack Obama went to a gym at a military base in Hawaii and did something positively Reaganesque — he returned a Marine's salute.

In so doing, he wandered directly into the middle of a thorny debate: Should U.S. presidents return military salutes or not?

Longstanding tradition requires members of the military to salute the president. The practice of presidents returning that salute is more recent — Ronald Reagan started it in 1981.

Reagan's decision raised eyebrows at the time. John Kline, then Reagan’s military aide and now a Minnesota congressman, advised him that it went against military protocol for presidents to return salutes.

Kline said in a 2004 op-ed piece in The Hill that Reagan ultimately took up the issue with Gen. Robert Barrow, then commandant of the Marine Corps.

Barrow told Reagan that as commander in chief of the armed forces, he was entitled to offer a salute — or any sign of respect he wished — to anyone he wished, Kline wrote, adding he was glad for the change.

Every president since Reagan has followed that practice, even those with no military experience.

The debate over saluting has persisted, with some arguing against it for protocol reasons, others saying it represents an increasing militarization of the civilian presidency.

"The gesture is of course quite wrong: Such a salute has always required the wearing of a uniform," author and historian John Lukacs wrote in The New York Times in 2003. "It represents an exaggeration of the president's military role."

In a 1986 speech delivered to military families in Iceland, President Reagan explained how he came to begin the practice of returning military salutes while President:

I can't resist telling you a little story that I've just told the marine guard at the Embassy. The story has to do with saluting. I was a second lieutenant of horse cavalry back in the World War II days. As I told the admiral, I wound up flying a desk for the Army Air Force. And so, I know all the rules about not saluting in civilian clothes and so forth, and when you should or shouldn't. But then when I got this job — [laughter] — and I would be approaching Air Force One or Marine One and those marines would come to a salute and I — knowing that I am in civilian clothes — I would nod and say hello and think they could drop their hand, and they wouldn't. They just stood there. So, one night over at the Commandant's quarters, Marine Commandant's quarters in Washington, and I was getting a couple of highballs, and I didn't — [laughter] — know what to do with them. So, I said to the Commandant — I said, "Look, I know all the rules about saluting in civilian clothes and all, but if I am the Commander in Chief, there ought to be a regulation that would permit me to return a salute." And I heard some words of wisdom. He said, "I think if you did, no one would say anything." [Laughter]

So, if you see me on television and I'm saluting, you know that I've got authority for it now — [laughter] — and I do it happily.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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