WASHINGTON (The Hill) — President Trump and Congress are on a collision course over whether to rename Army bases that are named for Confederate military officers.
Trump is adamantly opposed to changing the names, tweeting Wednesday that he would “not even consider” doing so. The next day he warned Republicans not to “fall for” for a legislative effort to change the names.
But just hours after making his position clear, news emerged that the Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to the annual defense policy bill that would require the Pentagon to rename bases and other military assets bearing the names of Confederate leaders.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a committee member, said the amendment shows Trump’s “resistance is so out of touch to be almost irrelevant,” while Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said “it’s part of the reckoning that’s long overdue.”
The House, too, appears poised to adopt a related amendment when it considers its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) — increasing the odds that a form of the amendment finds its way to Trump’s desk, forcing him to decide whether to veto a $740 billion bill that includes a pay raise for troops, new military hardware and other administration priorities.
“We’ll work that through, but we’re moving in the right direction,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), an Armed Services Committee member, said Thursday when asked about Trump’s opposition. “And the message is that if we’re going to have bases throughout the United States, I think it should be with the names of individuals who fought for our country. And so I think this is a step in the right direction. This is the right time for it. And I think it sends the right message.”
The rapid moves on Capitol Hill come on the heels of Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Defense Secretary Mark Esper announcing through an Army spokesperson on Monday that they were open to changing the names of 10 bases named after Confederate military officers: Fort Bragg in North Carolina; Fort Benning and Fort Gordon in Georgia; Fort Pickett, Fort A.P. Hill and Fort Lee in Virginia; Fort Polk and Camp Beauregard in Louisiana; Fort Hood in Texas; and Fort Rucker in Alabama.
The announcement, a reversal from a position expressed by the Army as recently as February, came amid nationwide protests over police violence and racial injustices. Protesters, along with state and local governments, have moved to take down multiple Confederate statues and monuments following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed when a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.
Congress is also grappling with how to handle its own Confederate statues, but with Democrats and Republicans proposing different approaches.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has asked for a congressional committee to remove them from the halls of Congress, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) argue it’s up to individual states to decide which statues represent them in the Capitol.
On Thursday, a group of black lawmakers introduced legislation that would remove the statues.
Trump, meanwhile, has been digging in.
Just two days after the Army’s announcement on Monday, Trump put an end to the service’s deliberations.
“These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom,” Trump tweeted. “Therefore, my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations.”
At a press briefing that started minutes later, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters Trump would veto an NDAA that required renaming the bases.
At that same time, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee were meeting behind closed doors to consider their version of the NDAA.
The amendment approved by the committee was first offered by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), though a committee staffer told reporters on a background call Thursday that changes were made to Warren’s original proposal in order to secure bipartisan support.
The revised amendment, as passed, would create a commission tasked with crafting an implementation plan for renaming bases and other assets, including examining costs and criteria for changing names, such as whether someone fought for the Confederacy “voluntarily,” a staffer said.
At the end of three years, the amendment says, the Pentagon “shall” remove all names, symbols, displays, monuments and paraphernalia that honor or commemorate the Confederacy or anyone who served voluntarily in the Confederate army, the staffer said.
“What we saw yesterday was a very thoughtful process and a bipartisan process of taking a very complicated and difficult issue, and putting in place a commission that will have a three-year period of operation that will carefully look at all the aspects of this issue and will also be able to engage in local communities who have an interest in the names of these facilities,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) told reporters on a conference call Thursday.
But Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.), stressing that it is early in the NDAA process, said he opposes the amendment as passed and indicated he would work to water it down.
In particular, Inhofe said he thinks there should be more flexibility in whether the commission can recommend against changing a name and that local communities should have more say in whether bases are renamed.
“We’re talking about input of the community, not just in the process, but also after a product comes out, they have to decide,” he said. “I think they ought to have veto authority.”
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), also on the committee, said he voted against the amendment. The amendment was approved on a voice vote, so there is no official record of who voted for or against it.
“I just don’t think Congress mandating that these be renamed and attempting to erase that part of our history is a way you deal with history,” Hawley said Thursday.
Trump on Thursday mocked Warren for proposing the amendment and warned Republicans against supporting it.
“Seriously failed presidential candidate, Senator Elizabeth ‘Pocahontas’ Warren, just introduced an Amendment on the renaming of many of our legendary Military Bases from which we trained to WIN two World Wars,” Trump tweeted, using a nickname for Warren that Native Americans and others consider racist. “Hopefully our great Republican Senators won’t fall for this!”
Senators opposed to the amendment could try to strip it out when the full Senate takes up the NDAA as soon as next week. But amending a bill on the floor in the upper chamber is often an uphill battle.
“If it’s in the base bill coming out of the committee … obviously it’s a heavy lift to take anything out of the bill if it’s been signed off there,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican.
Thune said he has yet to take a “view or position” on renaming the bases, but that “it’s a discussion worth having.”
“I know the president’s taken a pretty hard position on this. So I guess that’s something we’ll end up discussing,” he said.
Other GOP leaders signaled they preferred not to get involved, at least at this stage.
Asked if he supported the amendment, McConnell sidestepped. “That will be up to the committee to decide,” he responded.
en. Tim Scott (S.C.), the only African American Republican in the Senate, also said he hasn’t taken a position yet, adding that his focus right now is on the police reform bill he is taking the lead on drafting.
Still, some Republicans say they support changing the base names.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a frequent Trump critic who marched in a Black Lives Matter protest in D.C. last weekend, said he supports changing the names “in some cases” and that Trump’s stance is “not where I’d be.”
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) questioned the need to “perpetually” name a base after someone.
“There have been a lot of great soldiers that have come along since the Civil War,” he said.
Blunt also noted the historical consensus that “Braxton Bragg was probably the worst commanding general in the Confederate army,” quipping that he’s an “interesting general to name a fort after.”
Lawmakers disinclined to clash with Trump could also have a chance to remove the amendment when the Senate and House reconcile their versions of the legislation.
But with the House likely to include a version of the amendment in their bill, that would make it much harder to eliminate the provision during bicameral negotiations.
Reps. Anthony Brown (D-Md.), an Army veteran who is black, and Don Bacon (R-Neb.), an Air Force veteran, announced Thursday they have introduced a bill to create a commission to rename bases and other Pentagon property within a year.
Brown said in a statement that the name of a base “matters to the Black soldiers serving at an installation honoring the name of a leader who fought to preserve slavery and oppression,” while Bacon said “it is only right that our installations bear the names of military heroes who represent the best ideals of our republic.”
A spokesman for Brown said they plan to introduce the measure as an NDAA amendment when the House Armed Services Committee considers its version of the bill July 1.
Kevin McCarthy said he would reserve judgment until the NDAA is out of committee, but did not dismiss the idea of renaming the bases.
“I know Esper said he would be open to it and look at it as well,” he said. “I know there are a number of people in the armed services that think it could be appropriate to change some, and some would say otherwise not to. So we’ll look to see what comes out of the NDAA. I’ll wait to see what comes out of the NDAA. Not opposed to it, though.”
The Hill’s Jordain Carney and Juliegrace Brufke contributed to the contents of this article.