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Esper, amid resignation talk, reportedly working with lawmakers to strip Confederate names from bases

Esper, amid resignation talk, reportedly working with lawmakers to strip Confederate names from bases
© Greg Nash

Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperTrump administration pulls out of Open Skies treaty with Russia The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump, Biden clash over transition holdup, pandemic plans President is wild card as shutdown fears grow MORE plans to work with lawmakers to create legislation that would remove the names of Confederate leaders from military bases, NBC News reported.

Such a move, likely to draw the ire of President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden team wants to understand Trump effort to 'hollow out government agencies' Trump's remaking of the judicial system Overnight Defense: Trump transgender ban 'inflicts concrete harms,' study says | China objects to US admiral's Taiwan visit MORE, also comes as Esper is expected to leave his role after the announced results of the presidential election, regardless of who wins.

Three current defense officials told NBC that Esper has already drafted a resignation letter, which comes after months of reports that pointed to Trump’s displeasure with his Pentagon chief stemming from differing views.

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Esper now intends to work with Congress to put language in the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to cement into law name changes at military installations, three officials said.

He also reportedly provided a written framework this week to Pentagon leaders for stripping out the Confederate names, which could possibly extend to ships and street names on bases, the officials said.

Negotiations over the House and Senate versions of the NDAA have been stalled for weeks pending the outcome of the presidential election, though both require bases to be renamed. The Senate’s bill would stipulate the change come in three years, while the House version would force the change in one year.

Christian Unkenholz, a spokesman for Rep. Anthony BrownAnthony Gregory BrownHouse Democrats back slower timeline for changing Confederate base names OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Esper reportedly working with lawmakers to strip Confederate names from bases | Enemy attacks in Afghanistan jump by 50 percent, watchdog says | Fort Hood soldier arrested, charged in Chelsea Cheatham killing Esper, amid resignation talk, reportedly working with lawmakers to strip Confederate names from bases MORE — who sponsored the language on Confederate bases in the House NDAA — said the office hasn’t heard anything directly about Esper's position.

“Congressman Brown certainly welcomes Secretary Esper to this fight and hopes to count on his support for a strong provision in the final NDAA,” Unkenholz said.

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Another House aide familiar with the issue told The Hill that lawmakers are “not tracking any attempts to reach out on this issue as part of the conference process.”

Top Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman, meanwhile, would not confirm such efforts, and said the Defense Department “works with Congress to provide the administration’s concerns and views regarding proposed defense-related legislation — particularly when House and Senate versions of defense bills are being reconciled and finalized.”

“This does not indicate support for previously proposed legislative language. Out of respect for the members of Congress who have sought technical assistance in good faith, we generally do not discuss these efforts,” Hoffman said in a statement.

He also called the report that Esper had already drafted a resignation letter “inaccurate and misleading in many ways.” 

“To be clear, Secretary of Defense Esper has no plans to resign, nor has he been asked to submit a letter of resignation. He continues to serve the nation as the Secretary of Defense at the pleasure of the President and is working on the irreversible implementation of the National Defense Strategy. The speculation about potential resignations of Cabinet officials is a tiresome, well-worn, DC-insider, post-election parlor game.”

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Since this summer, Trump has made no secret of his dissatisfaction with Esper, who broke with the president in June when he opposed using active-duty troops against protesters. At the time, Trump repeatedly threatened to send in the military to quell demonstrations against racial injustice and police violence sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

The relationship soured further in July when Esper effectively banned the display of the Confederate battle flag on Pentagon property even as Trump continued to defend its display as an issue of free speech. 

In August, during a press conference at his Bedminster, N.J., property, Trump said that he "considers firing everybody" when asked if he considered firing Esper.  

“Some people call him Yesper,” Trump said, referring to the nickname that administration officials and even lawmakers reportedly gave Esper over his seemingly unfettered loyalty to implementing the president’s directives.

Trump has frequently pushed back against moves to pull Confederate names from military bases, tweeting in June that “my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations."

He has also threatened to veto the NDAA if the final version that reaches his desk requires name changes.

Rebecca Kheel contributed.