Trump is headed for a fight with Congress over renaming military bases that honour Confederate leaders

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President Donald Trump with Republican lawmakers at the White House, December 20, 2017. Associated Press/Manuel Balce Ceneta
  • The Senate included in its version of the 2021 National Defence Authorization Act a provision requiring the Defence Department to rename facilities that are named for Confederate leaders.
  • President Donald Trump has already vowed to veto a bill with such a provision, setting up a potential fight over a defence spending bill that is already behind schedule.
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With a provision in its version of the defence budget that requires the Defence Department to rename military installations honouring Confederate leaders, the Senate Armed Services Committee has set up a showdown with President Donald Trump, who has vowed to veto a bill that includes such a measure.

The Republican-led committee passed its version of the 2021 National Defence Authorization Act on Wednesday night with an amendment from Sen. Elizabeth Warren requiring the Pentagon to rename facilities named for Confederate leaders within three years. Roll Call first reported its inclusion.

“Changing the names of our bases won’t erase the history of slavery and legacy of white supremacy in the US. … But it’s long past time to stop honouring this ugly legacy,” Warren said Thursday.

According to a summary of the Senate NDAA, the provision mandates “Establishing a commission to study and provide recommendations concerning the removal, names, symbols, displays, monuments, and paraphernalia that honour or commemorate the Confederate States of America, addressing an implementation plan, cost, and criteria for renaming, among other procedures.”

“The implementation plan is to be implemented three years after enactment,” the summary says.

Fort hood army base
The main gate at the US Army post at Fort Hood, Texas. REUTERS/III Corps Public Affairs/U.S. Army/Handout

It comes after Trump threatened not to sign a defence bill that included such a measure.

In a statement Wednesday, Trump said the “monumental and very powerful bases” named for Confederate leaders “have become part of a great American heritage and a history of winning, victory, and freedom.”

“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 statement added.

Trump followed up on his comments on Thursday, criticising Warren and saying, “Hopefully our great Republican Senators won’t fall for this!”

Military installations named for Confederate leaders and other references to the Confederacy have attracted renewed attention in the wake of widespread protests in response to the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by police in Minneapolis during an arrest.

The Marine Corps’ top officer said in February that banning Confederate flags and other items on bases was one of his foremost priorities and explained in April that he was intent on removing sources of division from the Corps.

That movement has picked up steam in recent days.

The Navy’s top officer said Tuesday that, in order to “ensure unit cohesion” and “uphold the Navy’s core values,” he had directed his staff to craft an order “that would prohibit the Confederate battle flag from all public spaces and work areas aboard Navy installations, ships, aircraft and submarines.”

The Army still has 10 bases named after Confederate commanders. The service said earlier this year that it had no plans to “rename any street or installation,” but a spokesperson told Politico this week that Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy was now “open” to doing so.

Fort Bragg
The XVIII Airborne Corps Headquarters sign at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, June 28, 2019. Pfc. Joshua Cowden / 22nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment /DVIDS

The House and Senate have to agree on a final version of the bill before it goes to Trump.

The House Armed Services Committee could include a similar measure when it marks up its version of the NDAA next week; a spokesman for the committee said there was “bipartisan interest in the House to rename bases and remove references to the confederacy.”

Democratic Rep. Anthony Brown and Republican Rep. Don Bacon, both House Armed Services Committee members and veterans, introduced legislation on Thursday to set up within a year “a firm process” to rename military installations that currently honour Confederate leaders.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy also said Thursday that he was “not opposed” to renaming those bases.

Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, heralded Warren’s amendment, which he cosponsored, saying in a statement that the names are “not merely reminders of a painful past but symbols of a troubled present” and that it’s “time for a change.”

Sen. Jim Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Thursday that he didn’t agree with the provision and would try to weaken it by making it optional and by giving communities a say in whether changes are made.

“We’re talking about input of the community not just in the process but how to decide,” Inhofe said, according to Roll Call.

This story has been updated with comments from Sen. James Inhofe.