June 10, 2020 at 8:00 p.m. EDT
The Washington Post
President Trump on Wednesday rejected the idea of renaming military bases whose names honor Confederate military figures who fought on behalf of preserving the institution of slavery, sounding another divisive note amid a convulsive and painful national reckoning over police mistreatment of African Americans.
Trump said he would “not even consider” changing the names of U.S. military bases named for Confederate generals, even as his own defense secretary, Mark T. Esper, has said he would consider such proposals and as prominent former military figures, including retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, have suggested that such a step is overdue.
The declaration marked another effort by Trump to align himself with conservatives on divisive racial issues, even as much of the rest of the country appears to be moving in the other direction in significant ways. The contrast underscores the risks that the president faces in emphasizing such positions amid ongoing protests, an economic crisis and the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Shortly after Trump laid down his marker on the Confederate names, NASCAR — the racing circuit that includes many Trump voters among its fans — announced it was banning the display of the Confederate battle flag from “all NASCAR events and properties.” The mayor of Birmingham, Ala., also ordered the removal of a Confederate statue from a public park on Wednesday, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for the removal of Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol.
The reconsideration of Confederate symbols and mythology comes as the country reels from the video of George Floyd, a black man who died after being pinned at the neck under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer during an arrest.
“It has been suggested that we should rename as many as 10 of our Legendary Military Bases, such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Hood in Texas, Fort Benning in Georgia, etc. These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom,” Trump tweeted in his unusual capitalization style.
“The United States of America trained and deployed our HEROES on these Hallowed Grounds, and won two World Wars. Therefore, my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations. Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with. Respect our Military!”
The tweets — which the White House press secretary later read aloud for reporters — came as the military takes new steps to address the legacy of the Civil War and responds to pressure surrounding race and racism in the military. Late last week, the Marine Corps announced a ban on Confederate symbols in public spaces at its facilities. This week, the Navy said it was moving to do the same.
On Monday, officials said that Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy were “open to a bipartisan discussion on the topic,” referring to the proposed renaming of bases bearing the names of Confederate leaders.
Trump’s intercession is the latest example of the president amplifying a divisive cultural issue that carries potential political benefits, and risks, for him.
The three states he named in his tweet are battlegrounds or potential battlegrounds in the November election, and places where Trump needs to turn out his largely white base of support. That base is also heavily rural, less educated and disproportionately male, a demographic that lines up with general opposition to the removal of Confederate symbols.
North Carolina is also the titular host of the Republican National Convention, where Trump will be nominated for reelection. Trump has vowed to move the event, or the celebratory public parts of it, because of coronavirus-related restrictions imposed by North Carolina’s Democratic governor.
During the unrest sparked by the Floyd killing in Minneapolis, Trump and his allies have generally characterized the incident as an isolated case of police misconduct and have falsely sought to characterize nationwide protests as overwhelmingly violent and fomented by leftist anti-fascist radicals, or antifa.
Those positions put Trump out of step with most Americans. According to a Washington Post-Schar School poll released Tuesday, 69 percent of Americans say Floyd’s killing represents a broader problem with law enforcement, compared with only 29 percent who say it is an isolated incident.
Those advocating for changing the names of the military bases say that keeping the Confederate references serves to commemorate such injustices.
“The United States is now wrestling with repeated instances of abusive policing caught on camera, the legacies of systemic racism, the challenges of protecting freedoms enshrined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights while thwarting criminals who seek to exploit lawful protests, and debates over symbols glorifying those who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War,” Petraeus wrote Tuesday in the Atlantic.
McCarthy and Esper are right to consider changes, Petraeus wrote, noting his own long association with Fort Bragg, which is named for Braxton Bragg, a U.S. Military Academy graduate who commanded the Army of Tennessee for the Confederacy.
“Once the names of these bases are stripped of the obscuring power of tradition and folklore, renaming the installations becomes an easy, even obvious, decision,” Petraeus wrote.
Trump’s tweets appear to foreclose further consideration of any renaming on his watch, however.
A printed copy of his Twitter message was handed out to reporters moments before a briefing with White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who said Trump had directed the unusual action.
McEnany also read it from the briefing room podium and argued that it is disrespectful to veterans and those who have died to rename places from which they embarked for service overseas.
McEnany suggested that the president would veto legislation that authorizes defense programs if it included the renaming of bases.
“The president will not be signing legislation that renames America’s forts,” she said. “We’ve got to honor what has happened there, not rename it. So that is an absolute nonstarter for the president.”
McEnany likened changing the bases’ names to HBO Max temporarily removing “Gone With the Wind” from its programming over racist depictions.
“Where do you draw the line here?” she asked.
The president’s statement comes only days after tensions erupted between Esper and Trump over the president’s desire to flood Washington with active-duty troops during the recent protests.
Esper and Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were widely criticized for appearing on camera alongside Trump after protesters were forcibly cleared from the Lafayette Square area near the White House where an array of forces including National Guard were present.
Officials have said that Milley and Esper did not know they would be taking part in a Trump photo op.
A spokesman for Esper declined to comment on Wednesday on the president’s tweets.
This isn’t the first time there have been calls to change the names of some of the country’s most prominent bases. In recent years, when events such as the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville renewed focus on the nation’s persistent struggles with racism, efforts were made to rename the bases.
Trump has argued that statues of Confederate figures should not be removed because they are historical markers. He sympathized with what he called “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville, where a counterprotester was killed.
The latest developments come as the military grapples with controversy surrounding its participation in responding to recent civil unrest triggered by police violence and, more broadly, the role of African American troops and other minorities in the military.
In the past week, some current and former senior officers, including Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown Jr., who this week was confirmed as Air Force chief of staff, making him the military’s first black service chief, have spoken publicly about the challenges and discrimination they have faced as African American service members.
Pentagon leaders are also facing pressure from Congress, where lawmakers are demanding that Esper and Milley appear to answer questions about the military’s part in responding to recent protests. On Wednesday, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, issued a scathing letter in which he expressed his “profound frustration” with Esper.
“It is unacceptable that, except for staff communication, you have not responded to our formal written request that you and Chairman Milley appear before the committee for a hearing on the Department’s roles and authorities in civilian law enforcement,” Smith wrote, saying that the Pentagon had not provided written answers to questions on the same topic by a committee deadline.
In a statement, chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said that defense officials had briefed committee members on the issues Smith referenced earlier in the week and would provide them in written form on Wednesday. “The HASC staff is also well aware that we have been working on finding a mutually available date to testify soon,” he said.
Alex Horton contributed to this report.