President Donald Trump erupted late last week after Defense Secretary Mark Esper issued a new military-wide directive that was a de facto ban on the display of the Confederate flag.
According to two people familiar with his reaction, Trump was fuming over Esper’s carefully worded memo that did not mention the flag by name, but effectively banned it from being flown on military installations by not naming it.
Trump has declined to denounce the Confederate flag in recent weeks and has instead said those who see it as a source of pride should be able to continue flying it.
Two separate people who have spoken with the President in the following days said they believe Esper’s job remains safe for now, though the relationship between the two has significantly deteriorated in recent months.
Asked to comment, a senior White House official who declined to be named said, “Your story is inaccurate. When the matter was raised to the President, he was not angry.”
As CNN has previously reported, Esper is now one year into his job but finds himself walking a political tightrope during what is one of the most strained times in his tenure. Defense officials have told CNN that he has had to make time to focus on day-to-day crisis management alongside chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley to try and prevent Trump from making any disastrous decisions that could damage national security or demoralize the military.
Several sources said this relationship could be strained further in the next few months, though Trump is hesitant to fire another defense secretary so close to the November election.
Changing base names
Earlier this week, the House of Representatives approved a $740 billion national defense authorization bill that would require the military to remove the names of Confederate soldiers and leaders from military bases across the country. The Senate version of the bill incorporates similar provisions to rename the bases over three years. Trump has said he would veto the legislation if it strips the Confederate names from military bases.
On Thursday, Trump took to Twitter to reiterate his support for keeping the names of those Confederate-commemorating military bases. The President said he spoke to Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe who, according to Trump, told him that “he WILL NOT be changing the names of our great Military Bases.”
Inhofe is now vowing to keep provisions to strip Confederate names from military bases out of the final National Defense Authorization Act – although it’s unclear how he could pull it off after both chambers of Congress approved similar efforts to get rid of the names with veto-proof majorities this week. Inhofe, who voted for the bill in the Senate, will be one of one of the four main negotiators in the conference committee to hammer out the final bill.
“We’re going to see to it that provision doesn’t survive the bill,” Inhofe told The Oklahoman on Friday. “I’m not going to say how at this point.”
Division with Esper
The areas of division between Trump and Esper are myriad. In addition to the de facto Confederate flag ban, Esper approved Lt. Col Alexander Vindman for promotion even after the White House tried to get his name stricken from the promotion list in retribution for his congressional testimony on Ukraine, a defense official with direct knowledge confirmed to CNN.
The last time Esper spoke to Pentagon reporters on June 3, he tersely noted he did not support invoking the Insurrection Act that might have put active duty troops on the streets during the civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Trump had threatened to send in active duty troops and Esper’s statement angered the White House. Nothing that has happened since has made either side feel better.
And Esper is still pushing for an overhaul of the Pentagon aimed at countering threats posed by China and Russia, which he calls “our top strategic competitors.” But the White House shows no interest in taking on Russia, dismissing reports of Russian financial support for the Taliban to kill American forces, even as two US military commanders said they were still looking into it all.
There may be no bigger hint of the strains at play than what Esper is not saying. When he recorded a 10-minute video for troops largely touting his accomplishments and thanking the force, he didn’t mention the commander in chief once.
This story has been updated with comment from a senior White House official and Sen. Jim Inhofe’s comments to a local news outlet.
CNN’s Barbara Starr and Haley Byrd contributed to this report.