Once upon a time, presidential salutes weren't even a thing. That all changed in the 1980s, with President Ronald Reagan, and ever since then, it seems like each president has had an awkward fail while delivering one. If you need proof, look no further than these photos of President Donald Trump saluting compared to past presidents.
Along the way, you'll notice something: Technically, all of the presidents salute military personnel incorrectly.
Like every president since Reagan, Trump routinely salutes military members, whether it's while stepping on or off Marine One — the presidential helicopter — or while acknowledging parading officers, as the president did during his inauguration.
But there's a reason why the words "since Reagan" are worth noting. Many historical accounts about when it became common for presidents to salute military members — and why — trace the practice back to President Reagan. Those accounts also all pretty much agree on one thing: President Reagan pretty much made the whole thing up.
For that reason alone, the salutes are (very low-key) a taboo thing to do. Like, seriously.
In December 2008, Reuters columnist David Alexander described the subject of presidential salutes as a "thorny debate." A year later, Smithsonian magazine editor Carey Winfrey — a former Marine Corps lieutenant — wrote in The New York Times about how presidential salutes had "conflicted" him for a while.
For starters, Winfrey laid out how Marine Corps instructors told him, "you never salute without a cover," or a hat. So, by that logic, your everyday regular salute that you see from President Trump is, well, irregular.
The salute of presidents has also been criticized as a gesture that "represents an exaggeration of the president's military role." But Trump specifically has been blamed of a different exaggeration when it comes to salutes.
If there was one common critique from those who were skeptical of the president's recent trip to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, it was a worry that the summit would legitimize Kim, and images from the meeting would serve as an effective propaganda tool. Sure enough, North Korean state media did indeed broadcast images of Trump and Kim, which is no surprise, really. What is a surprise is the fact that one of those images is of Trump saluting a North Korean general.
And while North Korean media has a reputation for doctoring footage, this particular video seems authentic and, at the very least, not the best look for the president.
If there's one person who was aware that the salutes are an irregularity, it's the man who started the trend himself: President Reagan. During a speech before military members in Iceland in 1986, Reagan — himself a former member of the Army Reserves — explained why he bent the rules on saluting. He said,
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 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.
Reagan then said he arrived at a solution: "Uh, can't I just do this if I want?"
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.' So, if you see me on television and I'm saluting, you know that I've got authority for it now and I do it happily.
The rest was history from there. The presidential salute went from seemingly nonexistent to something president have to do, even though there's a case to be made that they shouldn't.
Reagan even felt it was so important that Time magazine has an account of the former president teaching President Bill Clinton how to salute, before the latter entered office in 1993.
And yet can bet that when Reagan's successor — his vice president George H.W. Bush — entered office, the elder Bush kept up the new tradition of returning military salutes. Even after exiting the White House, former presidents return salutes.
The photo below, for example, shows Bush Sr. saluting while passing by a soldier on the day President Obama was inaugurated.
Now take all that, and consider one of the most trivial "controversies" of the President Barack Obama's tenure, his "latte salute."
In 2014, Obama's White House posted a video on Instagram of the president saluting two military members after hopping of Marine One, with a cup of coffee in his hand.
It was criticized as "disrespectful" by the likes of Fox News' Karl Rove, a former adviser to President George W. Bush.
“Look, he knows there are going to be two Marines at the bottom of Marine One when he gets off," Rove told Sean Hannity at the time, "and the idea that I’m going to just jaunt out there with my chai tea, and give them the old … you know it’s not a latte salute, it’s a chai salute, because he drinks chai tea, but I mean please, how disrespectful was that?”
Meanwhile, others noted the obvious: The presidential salute is technically a made up thing in the first place.
So, whether it's Trump saluting without a hat, Obama saluting with a coffee cup, or Bush clumsily saluting with his dog in hand, just remember one thing. All of them probably wouldn't be saluting anyway, if it wasn't for Ronald Reagan, a true trendsetter.