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Trump says top Republican told him Congress would not force Pentagon to change Confederate names of military bases

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) last month.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) last month. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

President Trump said Friday that the Republican leader of the Senate Armed Services Committee personally assured him that Congress will not force the Pentagon to change the names of bases honoring Confederate generals — despite veto-proof votes in both the House and Senate this week to do just that.

“I spoke to highly respected (Chairman) Senator @JimInhofe, who has informed me that he WILL NOT be changing the names of our great Military Bases and Forts, places from which we won two World Wars (and more!),” Trump tweeted. “Like me, Jim is not a believer in ‘Cancel Culture.’ ”

Inhofe spokeswoman Leacy Burke confirmed that the Oklahoma Republican and the president did speak, but she declined to offer any more information about their conversation or Inhofe’s plans.

“The tweet speaks for itself,” she said.

The House and Senate passed parallel versions of a $740 billion defense authorization bill this week, each of which included an instruction to the Pentagon to come up with new names for military installations named after Confederate generals. The House’s version orders the Defense Department to make these changes within one year; the Senate’s version gives them three years.

Earlier this week, the White House threatened to veto the House bill, listing the base-renaming mandate as its top objection, calling it “part of a sustained effort to erase from the history of the Nation those who do not meet an ever-shifting standard of conduct.”

Despite that warning, the House passed its bill by a veto-proof majority of 295 to 125. The Senate passed its bill 86 to 14, also by a veto-proof margin. A majority of Republicans in both chambers voted in favor of the legislation.

Still, the defense bills must be reconciled in a conference process before a final compromise can be sent to Trump’s desk. If Inhofe has pledged to the president that the Confederate base mandate will disappear in Congress, those negotiations could be drawn out.

It is unlikely that removing a provision that has been endorsed in some form by both chambers of Congress will be easy. The provisions were adopted in each chamber’s Armed Services Committee with bipartisan support before the bills were passed on the floor. But neither Inhofe nor the House committee’s top Republican, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), supported their inclusion.

While Thornberry couched his opposition to a mandate by saying in committee that his “personal opinion is that the name of some, if not all, of these installations should be changed,” Inhofe has stated that he is personally opposed to changing the base names, citing — like the White House — the importance of preserving history.

Even though he personally objected, Inhofe did not force the Senate to vote on an amendment to replace the mandate. Democratic negotiators are unlikely to back down during conference negotiations.

Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, called Trump’s position against renaming the bases “out of touch.”

“I urge him to read up on who these men were, what they believed, and why they fought against the United States,” Reed said in a statement. “I urge him to listen to our uniformed and civilian military leaders who know that racism has no place in the ranks and are actively seeking ways to unify and strengthen our forces.”

There are other political developments that could also affect the outcome of the discussions. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) guessed earlier this month that it might take until November for work on the final defense bill to be completed — meaning final votes on the compromise legislation, and any veto the president might issue against it, would take place after the 2020 election.