Amid growing opposition, President Donald Trump said Friday he plans to reverse a Pentagon plan to defund Stars and Stripes, the iconic independent newspaper distributed to military bases and U.S. service members stationed around the world.
The fate of the storied publication garnered new attention this week after a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper demanding that it be saved. In February, Esper announced $5 billion in cuts to the department’s budget of more than $700 billion, including axing $15.5 million to keep the publication afloat.
The paper was set to cease publication by the end of September under the department's proposed budget.
“The United States of America will NOT be cutting funding to @starsandstripes magazine under my watch,” Trump tweeted Friday afternoon, adding, “It will continue to be a wonderful source of information to our Great Military!”
First printed during the Civil War, Stars and Stripes is an editorially independent "hometown newspaper" for U.S. military service members. Service members in war zones with little access to computers and limited phone service have relied on the newspaper for information and entertainment, including the popular crossword puzzle.
But a defense official told NBC News that Stars and Stripes is no longer a good business model and troops now get their news in other ways.
Trump's tweet came as he faces a backlash over an Atlantic magazine story that claimed the president called dead American service members "losers" and "suckers."
The plan to stop funding the newspaper drew condemnation from senators on both sides of the aisle.
"The $15.5 million currently allocated for the publication of Stars and Stripes is only a tiny fraction of your Department's annual budget, and cutting it would have a significantly negative impact on military families and a negligible impact on the Department's bottom line," read the letter to Esper signed by 15 senators, including four Republicans.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., sent his own letter to Esper in late August, asking him to preserve funding for the historic publication.
"As a veteran who has served overseas, I know the value that the Stars and Stripes brings to its readers," he wrote. "Given the history and the importance of the Stars and Stripes to the members of the Armed Forces, their families, and civilian employees, I believe this request is more than reasonable."
On Friday, Stars and Stripes provided figures about its substantial growth in readership during the past year, particularly during the coronavirus crisis.
The publication is currently averaging 2 million page views more than the same time period last year, which it said "speaks to the value Stars and Stripes has to the military community."
"No other organization was covering the effect of COVID on the military to the extent Stars and Stripes was, and our readers found tremendous value in it," the publication said.
Stars and Stripes' digital subscribers grew 432% over the last year and email newsletter subscribers grew 320%. Subscriptions also help fund the publication.
In February, Esper said Star and Stripes was "not a priority that met the cut line."
"We need to invest that money, as we did with many, many, many other programs, into higher-priority issues," Esper added.
Trump's Friday afternoon tweet was not the first time he's fired back on a Pentagon move via Twitter.
Last month, Politico reported about a Pentagon plan to cut military healthcare by $2.2 billion, also as part of Esper’s larger cost-cutting review.
The Pentagon denied the story, but Trump tweeted “a proposal by Pentagon officials to slash Military Healthcare by $2.2 billion dollars has been firmly and totally rejected by me."
"We will do nothing to hurt our great Military professional & heroes as long as I am your President," the tweet also said.
Soon after, when a reporter asked the president about Esper, Trump responded: “Some people call him Yesper. No, I get along with him. I get along with him fine. He’s fine.”