White House officials reopen discussion of renaming military bases named after Confederate generals

Officials said they don't know whether Trump will change his mind but thought he may be warming to the idea because he is again allowing discussion about it.
Image: The entrance to Fort Bragg, N.C.
The entrance to Fort Bragg, N.C.Chris Seward / AP file

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By Courtney Kube and Carol E. Lee

WASHINGTON — White House officials are revisiting the idea of renaming military bases that are named after Confederate generals, a move President Donald Trump had previously rejected, according to three senior administration officials.

Conversations among White House officials in recent days about renaming the bases have been spurred by a growing recognition in the West Wing that the names of the bases will eventually be changed — with or without Trump's backing — given widespread support for the idea and the momentum it has gained in Congress even among lawmakers from the president's own party. So White House officials are debating whether Trump should support a process to rename them so he can have a say in whom they are named after, officials said.

The officials said Trump is aware that the conversations are taking place.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy had expressed support for changing the names of bases that memorialize Confederate generals. But Trump swiftly shut down the idea.

Officials said they don't know whether Trump will change his mind or how he might explain such a sharp reversal, but they said they thought Trump may be warming to the idea because, after having rejected the idea last week, he is again allowing a discussion about it.

A White House official said Wednesday that Trump's "position hasn't changed on renaming bases."

Some of Trump's advisers outside the White House have urged him to change his mind, according to two people familiar with the discussions. And White House officials have made the case to Trump that he could influence the names if he does it now, rather than have them named, as one of them noted, after a Democrat or a military official Trump doesn't like.

Administration officials have quipped that they don't want to end up with a "Fort Clinton."

Democrats and Republicans in Congress have expressed support for renaming bases, and an amendment that would mandate such a step has advanced in the GOP-controlled Senate.

On Tuesday, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., floated an expanded effort that would require all military bases to be renamed after Medal of Honor recipients. Focusing just on those named after Confederate generals, Kennedy said, "picks on the South unfairly."

The issue is expected to be debated as part of the House and Senate deliberations on the annual National Defense Authorization Act, which sets policies and funding for the military.

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows has opposed renaming the bases, and he has made the case that Trump should reject such an effort, according to the three senior administration officials. Meadows argued that Trump would lose his core voters if he renamed the bases, an official said, persuading the president to oppose any changes. Meadows summoned Esper and McCarthy to the White House to discuss the matter late last week while the president was traveling outside Washington.

Before Trump voiced his opposition, McCarthy had planned to create a task force to review the issue. The task force would have gone beyond bases to include a review of streets and buildings on military installations that are named after Confederate soldiers forces and would have gathered feedback from U.S. soldiers all over the world.

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A senior administration official described the internal White House discussions as exploratory.

"It's a foregone conclusion that the bases will be renamed, so why not try to influence who they're named after?" said the official, describing the nature of the conversations.

The secretary of the Army has the authority to rename Army bases, and there is no requirement for congressional or White House approval. But as a political appointee, McCarthy would likely coordinate any changes with the defense secretary, the White House and the Hill. Congress can vote to force a name change, but the president can veto any bill that comes to his desk. The White House has influence but no real authority to change the names unilaterally.