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Trump vows to veto $740 billion defense bill if Confederate-named military bases are renamed

President Trump walks across the South Lawn after arriving on Marine Force Once at the White House on Thursday. (Alex Brandon/AP)
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President Trump reaffirmed late Tuesday that he would veto this year’s proposed $740 billion annual defense bill if an amendment is included that would require the Pentagon to change the names of bases named for Confederate military leaders, his strongest rebuke against the measure amid a national reckoning over systemic racism.

Shortly before midnight, the president echoed his previous pledge to “not even consider the renaming” of military bases as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, pushing back against a provision that would change the names of 10 bases named after Confederate generals as well as remove Confederate likenesses, symbols and paraphernalia from defense facilities nationwide within three years.

He voiced his frustration over the provision in a late-night tweet slamming Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the amendment’s sponsor whom the president regularly calls “Pocahontas” in jeering reference to her claims of American Indian heritage.

“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 said.

The measure, which was approved last month in a voice vote by the Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee, has become a flash point at a time when nationwide protests over racial injustice and police brutality continue in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day.

After a month that has seen statues of Confederate leaders and slave owners be taken down to a mix of praise from those who call them racist and criticism from those who say they’re a part of the country’s history, the debate in the Senate this week has shifted attention toward the push to remove the names of the Confederate officials that are front and center on some of the nation’s most recognizable military bases.

Democrats and critics have been quick to challenge the president on the issue, and it was no different on Tuesday. Trump’s previous suggestion he would veto the defense bill over the renaming of the military bases drew criticism earlier on Tuesday from Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). In a news conference, Schumer said the provision sponsored by Warren would remain in this year’s NDAA, no matter what the president proclaimed.

“I dare President Trump to veto the bill over Confederate-base naming,” Schumer said to reporters. “It’s in the bill. It has bipartisan support. It will stay in the bill.” He added, “I think the bottom line is what’s in the bill will stay in the bill.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on June 30 said a provision to rename military bases would stay in the National Defense Authorization Act. (Video: The Washington Post)

Without Trump vetoing the entire defense bill, stripping the amendment from this year’s NDAA remains highly unlikely. Opponents of the base-renaming amendment are not expected to be anywhere close to the 60 votes needed to remove it from the bill.

“There are definitely not 60 votes to remove that provision, which is already in the bill, and I don’t think there are 50,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) tweeted early Wednesday.

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has suggested a final vote on the chamber’s bill would take place before the Fourth of July holiday. As The Washington Post’s Karoun Demirjian reported, Republican support for the provision suggests it will survive any potential challenges on the Senate floor this week. There has been vocal opposition to the provision in the chamber, such as from Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who has proposed an amendment to strip the renaming requirement. Inhofe has previously said he hoped to change the language in Warren’s amendment so that the requirement to rename the bases would instead be a recommendation.

Senate defense bill may challenge Trump on renaming military bases with Confederate names

Yet even senior Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Majority Whip John Thune (S.D.), have distanced themselves from the president’s stance in recent weeks, The Post’s Seung Min Kim wrote.

“I’m not wedded to the idea that those names of those military installations are eternal,” Thune said last month. “I think that you reevaluate, given the timing and circumstances and where we are in the country, who we want to revere with, you know, by naming military installations or other national monuments. And so I think you have to periodically take a look at that. And in this case, it’s perhaps time to do it.”

Senate Republicans look for way to avoid election year debate over military bases named for Confederate leaders

Trump potentially vetoing the entire bill — a “must-pass” piece of bipartisan legislation — could trigger other consequences. The Post’s Felicia Sonmez and Paul Kane noted last month how vetoing this year’s proposed $740 billion NDAA could result in no money for research related to the coronavirus pandemic, no 3 percent pay raise for troops, and no funding for new aircraft or ships, among other items.

Trump faces clash with Congress over Confederate names on military bases

The president’s vow came hours after Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) signed a bill that would remove the Confederate battle emblem from Mississippi’s flag, which had been the last state to feature the symbol on its flag. At a ceremony on Tuesday, Reeves said removing the Confederate symbol was “not a political moment to me but a solemn occasion to lead our Mississippi family to come together and move on.”

The state of Mississippi joined the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and NASCAR as entities that have recently removed displays of the Confederate flag. The trend was not lost on Trump critic Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York before being fired by the president in 2017.

“Read the room,” he said.