Trump to Keep Confederate Names on Bases, Halting Pentagon Talks
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with African-American supporters in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Doug Mills/The New York Times/Bloomberg)

Trump to Keep Confederate Names on Bases, Halting Pentagon Talks

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(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump said his administration won’t rename American military bases that honor leaders of the Confederacy, an abrupt halt to Pentagon deliberations over ending tributes to treasonous soldiers who fought the U.S. to maintain slavery.

The announcement was part of a series of remarks by White House officials on Wednesday that touched awkwardly on the deep U.S. racial divisions on display in the protests over the death of George Floyd. Following tweets on the military bases, Trump brought reporters into an unannounced meeting with some of his black supporters and media figures, where the group discussed police reform.

Trump to Keep Confederate Names on Bases, Halting Pentagon Talks

His tweets on the bases came in answer to growing debate about their names, including an op-ed by retired General David Petraeus in the Atlantic on Tuesday that called for the facilities to be renamed.

“The United States of America trained and deployed our HEROES on these Hallowed Grounds, and won two World Wars,” Trump said Wednesday in a series of tweets. “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!”

An Army spokesman said earlier this week that the service’s secretary, Ryan McCarthy, was open to changing the names of bases such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Hood in Texas. Politico reported that Defense Secretary Mark Esper also supported the discussion.

Braxton Bragg and John Hood, the namesakes of the two bases, were generals in the Confederate army that waged what remains the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Eight other military bases are named after officers in the rebel cause.

Politico reported the suggestion to rename the bases had gained momentum in the Pentagon in response to civil unrest over the death of Floyd, an unarmed black man killed in Minneapolis police custody last month.

Trump has shown hostility toward protests over Floyd’s death, blaming rioting and looting that has accompanied some of the demonstrations on leftist “Antifa” groups he’s called terrorists and threatening to use the military to quell the unrest.

Separately, Trump announced on Wednesday that he planned to resume his campaign rallies, with the first in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 19. Both the date and the setting resonate in America’s long struggle over racial injustice. Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery. And Tulsa has been preparing to mark the centennial next year of massacres of black residents by white mobs in the city’s Greenwood neighborhood.

A spokeswoman for Trump’s campaign, Katrina Pierson, said in a statement that “as the party of Lincoln, Republicans are proud of the history of Juneteenth, which is the anniversary of the last reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.” The statement went on to praise the president’s “record of success for black Americans.”

Trump’s tweets on the issue of renaming military bases is a sign of further distance with Esper, who surprised his boss last week by publicly expressing reservations about using the military against protesters.

Biden Criticism

Asked about the president’s tweets on Wednesday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany delivered extended remarks on the matter, using the issue to segue into a suggestion that Trump’s presumptive re-election opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, sympathized with 20th century segregationists.

She called renaming the bases an “insult” to troops who trained at the facilities and then departed for war.

“Where do you draw the line here? I’m told that no longer can you find on HBO, ‘Gone with the Wind,’ because somehow that is now offensive,” she said, a reference to the 1939 Academy Award-winning movie that modern critics have called nostalgic for the Confederacy. HBO Max announced this week it would temporarily remove the film from its rotation.

She then cited news reports on Biden’s relationships with segregationist senators and his opposition to federally mandated school busing, and asked: “Should we then re-name the Biden Welcome Center?” in Delaware.

In his the commentary, Petraeus pointed out that he served at several of the forts, including Fort Bragg -- the largest Army base in the U.S. -- Fort Pickett and Fort Polk.

“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. “Now, belatedly, is the moment for us to pay such attention.”

He said that many of the Confederate generals the bases honor were incompetent commanders, as well, whose names likely would be forgotten but for the “Lost Cause” movement that has downplayed the racist origins of the Confederacy and engendered sympathy for the rebels.

Trump has endured a raft of criticism from retired generals in the past week after the government violently dispersed a peaceful protest in Lafayette Square across the street from the White House on June 1. After the protesters were cleared from the park, Trump walked to the arson-damaged St. John’s Episcopal Church with a coterie of aides including Esper to hold up a Bible in front of photographers.

Esper later said he wasn’t aware Trump planned the walk or photo op before he was involved. Trump’s former defense secretary, James Mattis, issued a scathing statement calling the Lafayette Square attack on protesters an abuse of the president’s powers.

‘Systemic Racism’

Earlier Wednesday, the president’s top economic adviser Larry Kudlow dismissed the idea that the U.S. suffers from “systemic racism.” Demonstrators against Floyd’s death have accused American police of engaging in systematic brutality against people of color and have demanded sweeping reforms to U.S. law enforcement agencies.

“I don’t believe nowadays we have systemic racism,” Kudlow told reporters at the White House.

The White House is under pressure to address civil unrest over the death of Floyd. Protesters in cities nationwide have accused police of systematic brutality against people of color and have demanded wide-ranging reforms.

Kudlow, who is white, said the White House is “looking at” an executive order on the matter. “We’re studying possible reforms,” he said.

Kudlow attributed high-profile cases of police brutality to some “very bad apples” and touted the Trump administration’s record setting up tax-advantaged “Opportunity Zones” in low-income neighborhoods and providing funding to historically black colleges and universities.

The White House said earlier that Trump will “discuss solutions to historic economic, health and justice disparities in American communities” at a roundtable event in Dallas on Thursday before a fundraiser. The statement didn’t use the word “race” or “racial” to describe the issues the president would address.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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