Trump reverses Pentagon move to close military newspaper amid blowback from veterans

Closure of Stars and Stripes a ‘fatal interference and permanent censorship’ of a vital lifeline for service members amid president’s attempts to undermine press

Alex Woodward
New York
Monday 07 September 2020 16:45
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Trump denies calling war dead 'losers' and 'suckers'

Donald Trump claims he won’t allow the Pentagon to shutter the nation’s century-old military newspaper after Defence Department officials ordered the publication to cease operation by the end of the month.

Defending himself against several corroborated reports that he insulted military personnel, veterans and war dead as “losers” and “suckers” while in office, the president – reportedly prompted by White House staff after reviewing press coverage of the publication’s potential demise – said he’s reversing the decision.

Stars and Stripes, an editorially independent newspaper funded through the US Department of Defence, has published for nearly 160 years – from its founding by Union soldiers on the brink of the US Civil War through endless wars abroad – often provoking leadership with a “grunt’s”-eye view of the military and its brass.

A Pentagon memo to the newspaper’s publisher and staff ordered it to “dissolve” and publish its final edition, in print and online, on 30 September. It also demanded a “specific timeline for vacating government owned/leased space worldwide.”

But on Friday afternoon, following a day of allegations that he had repeatedly denigrated veterans of war, the president unexpectedly announced that “the United States of America will NOT be cutting funding” to the newspaper “under my watch.”

“It will continue to be a wonderful source of information to our Great Military!” he said on Twitter.

Before the president’s apparent intervention, a bipartisan group of senators urged Defence Secretary Mark Esper to continue funding the newspaper, an “essential part of our nation’s freedom of the press that serves the very population charged with defending that freedom,” they wrote.

Outlined in February, the Defence Department’s 2021 budget proposal would cut $15.5m from the newspaper – roughly half the newspaper’s annual budget, with the remainder covered through subscriptions and advertisements – but lawmakers have urged officials to wait for congressional approval before ordering the newspaper’s closure.

A group of four Republicans and 11 Democrats requested that Secretary Esper “rescind” his “decision to discontinue support for Stars and Stripes” and “reinstate the funding necessary for it to continue operations.”

In a separate letter to Secretary Esper sent at the end of August, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a former Air Force Reserve lawyer who retired at the rank of colonel, expressed his support for the publication.

“As a veteran who has served overseas, I know the value that the Stars and Stripes brings to its readers,” he wrote.

Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego, an Iraq War veteran, had included an amendment to the Defence Department budget that specifically maintains funding for the newspaper.

“Trump is only doing this now to prevent my amendment from taking hold,” he said. “This is just another attack on the press.

Stars and Stripes staff believe it’s unlikely that Congress would approve the Pentagon’s request and are sceptical that the president’s timely announcement would preempt lawmakers’ budget process.

The Senate Appropriations Committee will mull whether to approve those funding measures, though nine members on that committee – including four Republicans and five Democrats – were among senators who wrote to Secretary Esper.

But it remains unclear why the Pentagon would gut the newspaper, within a budget that’s a fraction of the Defence Department’s massive $700bn operation, and place it within the administration’s crosshairs, as the White House continues to undermine journalists and the media.

“We’ve had three-plus years of the press being described as the enemy of the people,” Stars and Stripes ombudsman Ernie Gates told The Independent, adding that the president’s frequent message likely “emboldens” officials who already consider the press a “nuisance at the Pentagon,” he said.

“That’s one of the underlying factors, without a question,” he said.

Though it’s not the first time the newspaper has faced budget cuts that would force its closure, as well as economic challenges that have scorched the print media landscape, its potential dissolution follows the Trump administration’s moves to cripple other government-funded media outlets, including the US Agency for Global Media, which manages Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcast Networks.

The newspaper’s print circulation provides a vital lifeline and independent voice to service members embedded in remote corners of the world, featuring voices of military personnel on the ground and an independent lens that functions beyond press releases, often contradicting leadership.

Mr Gates told The Independent that closing Stars and Stripes “would be fatal interference and permanent censorship of a unique First Amendment organisation that has served US troops reliably for generations.”

“To shut down Stars and Stripes on [1 October] would also defy the expressed will of the House and pre-empt full consideration by the Senate,” he said in a statement. “There’s every reason to expect that the federal government will operate under a Continuing Resolution when the current fiscal year ends on [30 September] … When Congress completes the budget process, it should then make Stars and Stripes’ funding ironclad.”

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