President Donald Trump responded to waves of demonstrations for racial justice today by picking a fight over the legacy of the Confederacy, further inflaming the nation’s culture war at a time when tensions were already high after the killing of George Floyd and widespread street protests against police brutality.
On the same day that Floyd’s brother pleaded with Congress to tackle racism in the United States, Trump publicly slapped down the Pentagon for considering renaming Army bases named after Confederate officers who fought against the Union during the Civil War. The White House said the president would go so far as to refuse to sign the annual defense authorization bill if Congress tried to force his hand.
In speaking out on behalf of Confederate base names, the president positioned himself even more firmly against the growing movement for change that has emerged since Floyd’s death in the custody of a white Minneapolis police officer who pressed a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes. While Trump has denounced the killing, he has emphasized a law-and-order, pro-police message appealing to his hardcore base and dismissed complaints of systemic racism.
But he has appeared to be tacking against the popular tide, as polls showed wide public support for protesters in the streets and various institutions in society have scrambled to demonstrate solidarity with the broader aims of the demonstrations. Even some sectors of American life that Trump has catered to were breaking the other direction.
Only two hours after his defense of Confederate base names, NASCAR announced that it would ban Confederate flags from its races. The NFL has already reversed itself to embrace kneeling players protesting racism.
At the Capitol, Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for the removal of 11 remaining statues of Confederate figures, including Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, days after Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia vowed to remove the statue of Lee from the storied Monument Avenue in Richmond, the onetime Confederate capital. Other similar symbols were being removed elsewhere in the country.
Trump stretched credulity again today in insisting that he has done more for African Americans than virtually any other president, citing financial support for historically black colleges and universities and legislation to overhaul criminal sentencing. He invited in cameras to record him meeting with a half-dozen black advisers and supporters — mainly, it seemed, to have them echo his complaints that he was not being treated fairly by the news media.
But the president expressed no sympathy for the idea of renaming the 10 Army bases that honor Confederate generals who were traitors to the United States and fought against the U.S. military to defend the slaveholding South. Among them are Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Hood in Texas and Fort Benning in Georgia.
“The United States of America trained and deployed our HEROES on these Hallowed Grounds, and won two World Wars,” Trump wrote in a string of Twitter messages. “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!”
But the president’s outburst angered senior officials at the Pentagon at a time when the commander in chief and his top military leaders have already been clashing over how to respond to the street protests.
Trump wanted to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 to send active-duty troops into the cities to take on looters and rioters, only to run into heated and eventually public resistance from Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
With that rift still unhealed, Esper and Milley were anxious to show understanding of the public anger that has also manifested itself among those in uniform. They held meetings Tuesday to discuss the gap in the military between its mostly white officer corps and its diverse enlisted ranks, where 43% are people of color.
Esper and Milley discussed coming up with what officials called a “comprehensive plan” to address Army base names, Confederate symbols on military installations and the alienation that many service members who are people of color say they have come to feel in a military where most of their senior leaders are white men.
One Defense Department official, who like others insisted on anonymity to discuss internal affairs, said the conversation went beyond just the base names and that senior officials talked about ways to unify white and black service members on issues that have been divisive.
But Trump grew upset when he saw articles about the possibility of renaming bases, according to two administration officials. Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, encouraged the president to block any attempt to change the names, officials said.
The friction over the names only fueled a broader rift between the commander in chief and his senior military leaders.
Trump opted to make a public show of overruling the Pentagon, and preparations were made to amplify his tweets once he posted them. The scheduled briefing by Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, was delayed about 50 minutes until the tweets went online, and White House staff members handed out printouts of the posts to reporters as the briefing began.
From the lectern, McEnany said renaming the bases would be “an insult” to the troops who served there and then were sent off to combat zones overseas. “To tell them that what they left was inherently a racist institution because of a name, that’s unacceptable to the president, and rightfully so,” she said.
She added that Trump would not compromise with lawmakers on the matter. “The president will not be signing legislation that renames America’s forts,” she said.
Leaning into the argument, McEnany then expanded on the point, criticizing HBO Max for announcing this week that it has temporarily removed “Gone With the Wind” from its catalog over concerns about the film’s romanticization of the slaveholding South.
“Where do you draw the line here?” McEnany asked.
Picking up an argument that Trump has made, she suggested that revered figures like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt could be “erased from history” next. She then took it another step by suggesting that a highway truck stop named after former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, could be renamed because, by his own admission, he worked with segregationist lawmakers when he first arrived in the Senate, and they were powers in the Democratic caucus.
Trump, a native of New York who avoided military service during the Vietnam War citing bone spurs in his foot, has aligned himself repeatedly with Southern defenders of Confederate heritage, most notably during a rally in 2017 in Charlottesville, Va., that attracted white supremacists and turned violent.
Among those who say it is time to change the base names is Gen. David Petraeus, the retired Army commander in Iraq and Afghanistan who served at Fort Bragg three times.
“The irony of training at bases named for those who took up arms against the United States, and for the right to enslave others, is inescapable to anyone paying attention,” he wrote in The Atlantic on Tuesday. “Now, belatedly, is the moment for us to pay such attention.”
Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, another retired officer and former commander at Fort Benning, criticized Trump for his refusal to consider name changes. “Rather than move this nation further away from institutionalized racism, he believes we should cling to it and its heritage by keeping the names of racist traitors on the gates of our military bases,” Eaton said.
The call by Pelosi, D-Calif., to remove the remaining Confederate statues from the Capitol will force lawmakers to consider their own home.
“While I believe it is imperative that we never forget our history lest we repeat it, I also believe that there is no room for celebrating the violent bigotry of the men of the Confederacy in the hallowed halls of the United States Capitol or in places of honor across the country,” Pelosi wrote in a letter to the top lawmakers on the Joint Committee on the Library, which oversees the statue collection.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, the top Democrat on the committee, immediately endorsed Pelosi’s proposal, saying in a statement that officials “should expediently remove these symbols of cruelty and bigotry from the halls of the Capitol.” Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the top Republican on the panel, did not comment.
During her first tenure as speaker, from 2007 to 2011, Pelosi oversaw the relocation of Lee’s statue from a prominent position in National Statuary Hall to the Capitol’s crypt. Congress has allowed states to provide two statues for display in the Capitol since 1864, and in 2000 approved new legislation that would allow states to swap an old sculpture for a new one.
But if Trump may not see Lee’s figure at the Capitol if the speaker’s plan is approved, he will find another likeness of the Confederate general Saturday when he visits the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to deliver the commencement address.
Lee, a West Point graduate and later its superintendent, is honored throughout the academy. His name adorns a gate, a road and a barracks, not counting portraits of him hanging on the walls.