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Opinion Biden moves to undo Trump’s political play on the Space Command

President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the White House for Trump's announcement of the establishment of the U.S. Space Command in August 2019. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
5 min

The aftershocks from Donald Trump’s presidency reach even to outer space, but the Biden administration is quietly moving to repair one piece of the damage that could affect national security.

The White House appears ready to reverse a Trump administration plan to relocate the U.S. Space Command from Colorado Springs to Huntsville, Ala., because it fears the transfer would disrupt operations at a time when space is increasingly important to the military.

The Space Command siting decision has been a political football for the past four years. Trump made the decision on Jan. 11, 2021, five days after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. He had said earlier that he wouldn’t decide until he knew the 2020 election results, “to see how it turns out.” Colorado voted against him, while Alabama gave him strong support and its representatives backed his false claim he had won.

Senior military officials argued from the start for remaining in Colorado Springs, where the Space Command and its predecessors have been based for decades, and the Biden administration seems finally to be nearing the same conclusion. “We share the concerns of some military leaders about potential disruption of space operations at a critical moment for our national security,” a White House official said this week.

An initial review last year of the Huntsville decision by the Biden Defense Department’s inspector general found it “lawful” and “reasonable,” and the Government Accountability Office said last year that the Air Force had “largely followed” the normal base-location process. But in December 2022, the White House requested “a review of the review,” the official said, because of concerns that the relocation would mean a protracted delay in settling the Space Command in a new location.

“We’re doing some additional analysis; we want to make very sure we get this right,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told the Air and Space Association on March 7.

Trump’s treatment of the issue had a political edge all along, according to John W. Suthers (R), the mayor of Colorado Springs. He told me in an interview, confirming details of a letter he had written this month to Kendall, that Trump told him in spring 2019, when the Air Force was preparing its list of six finalists for the command headquarters, that he would make the decision “personally.”

Trump spoke with Suthers about the decision a second time in February 2020. When the mayor pitched Colorado Springs, Trump asked if he was a Republican. When Suthers answered yes, Trump asked what his prospects were of his winning Colorado. Suthers told me that when he answered “uncertain,” Trump seemed “perturbed.” Trump then declared that he would make the choice after the 2020 election. “I want to see how it turns out,” Trump explained, according to Suthers.

When Trump gathered his advisers at the White House on Jan. 11, 2021, the senior military official present was Air Force Gen. John Hyten, a former head of the Space Command. He told me in an email: “When asked, I provided my best military advice[,] which was counter to the [Air Force] recommendation of Huntsville. I recommended Colorado Springs. My rationale was that the threat, primarily China, demanded that we move as fast as possible to reach full operational capability and that we could do that in Colorado much quicker than in Alabama.”

This same recommendation was made by two other top military space officials, Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, the Space Force chief; and U.S. Army Gen. James H. Dickinson, who headed the Space Command, according to the GAO report.

A late entrant in this political fracas was Florida, which argued that the Space Command should move to Patrick Space Force Base near Cape Canaveral. “What about Florida?” Trump demanded at the meeting, according to then-acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, who was present. Miller told me that he and others warned Trump against that, citing the frequency of hurricanes and other factors. Miller said that the rejection of Florida was conveyed by his chief of staff, Kash Patel, to that state’s advocates, led by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).

Rep. Mo Brooks made one of the earliest announcements of Trump’s selection of the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. Brooks, who represents the area, was one of the leading GOP congressional apologists for the Jan. 6 riot, arguing falsely in a tweet the next day: “Evidence growing that fascist ANTIFA orchestrated Capitol attack with clever mob control tactics.”

Some observers saw Brooks’s Huntsville advocacy as crucial. “But for Mo Brooks, the Space Command would not have been at Redstone Arsenal. I want to emphasize though that it’s a team effort,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Tex.). A Jan. 13, 2021, story in Axios noted that “two of Trump’s staunchest backers in Congress, Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville and Rep. Mo Brooks, used their strong personal relationships with the president” to advocate for Huntsville.

Trump emphatically took personal political credit for steering the Space Command toward a friendly state. “I single-handedly said, ‘Let’s go to Alabama,’” he told the hosts of “Rick and Bubba,” a Birmingham-based radio show. “They wanted it. I said, ‘Let’s go to Alabama.’ I love Alabama.’”

Trump’s long shadow reaches to some unlikely places, but few as important as the prompt establishment of the Space Command headquarters. President Biden is right to listen to the generals on this one and keep the locus of space operations where it is.