Trump threatens to veto defense policy bill over proposed renaming of bases honoring Confederates

Quint Forgey

President Donald Trump on Tuesday threatened to veto Congress’ annual defense authorization bill over objections to renaming U.S. military bases honoring Confederate commanders — hardening his rhetoric regarding the preservation of controversial American sites and statues.

“I will Veto the Defense Authorization Bill if the Elizabeth ‘Pocahontas’ Warren (of all people!) Amendment, which will lead to the renaming (plus other bad things!) of Fort Bragg, Fort Robert E. Lee, and many other Military Bases from which we won Two World Wars, is in the Bill!” Trump wrote on Twitter, reprising his earlier criticism of the modified measure.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany previously told reporters at a news briefing last month that the president would not sign any legislation that includes provisions to rename the installations that honor Confederate military figures, describing such a bill as an “absolute nonstarter.”

Nonetheless, the Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to its version of the National Defense Authorization Act offered by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) that would force the Pentagon to remove names, monuments and paraphernalia honoring the Confederacy from military bases over the next three years.

Senior military leaders including Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy also expressed openness to renaming the 10 Army bases and facilities named after Confederate leaders, but encountered opposition from the president, who tweeted his administration “will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations.”

The NDAA authorizes $740 billion for military hardware and nuclear weapons development, grants a pay raise to troops and dictates policy for the Pentagon for the coming fiscal year. It is one of the few major bills that reliably becomes law each year, making it a magnet for contentious legislative priorities.

Several Republicans have vowed to fight Warren’s provision on the Senate floor. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) introduced an amendment to the NDAA last week that would replace her plan with a commission to make recommendations on renaming defense assets after consulting with states and localities and holding public hearings. Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) unveiled a similar proposal Tuesday.

The Senate has yet to hold any votes on those suggestions as it debates the NDAA this week. Warren’s amendment, however, could be the more conservative approach of the two chambers’ defense bills.

House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said his committee would adopt an amendment to scrub Confederate names from military bases within a year when it debates its version of the NDAA on Wednesday, asserting the more aggressive measure would win GOP support. “I do know that there is Republican sympathy for doing this, and there’s a desire on their part to be able to vote in favor it,” he told reporters Tuesday.

But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) predicted Wednesday the NDAA would win congressional passage with Warren’s amendment intact, and dismissed Trump’s tweet as “nothing but typical bluster” from the president.

“Let me make a prediction. First, that provision will not change in this bill as it moves through the House and Senate,” he said. “Second, let me predict President Trump will not veto a bill that contains pay raises for our troops and crucial support for our military.”

Warren also led a group of three dozen Democratic senators last week in announcing legislation that would give the Defense secretary just one year to remove monuments, paraphernalia and symbols honoring the Confederacy from military installations, buildings, streets, ships and planes — as opposed to the three years called for in her NDAA amendment.

Trump’s veto threat, if realized, would represent his latest display of presidential power aimed at protecting tributes to the Confederacy and other memorials complicated by the country’s racist past. He issued an executive order last Friday directing the Justice Department to prioritize the prosecution of protesters who damage federal monuments and to limit federal funding for local governments perceived to not be adequately protecting them.

The president has elicited fierce condemnation in recent weeks from critics who have accused him of seeking to exacerbate America’s racial divides ahead of November’s general election. On Sunday morning, he shared a video in which an elderly supporter could be heard shouting “white power,” and he cast his reelection bid Tuesday as a “battle to save the Heritage, History, and Greatness of our Country!”

Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.