The Pentagon ordered the closure of the venerable military newspaper Stars and Stripes on Friday. But hours later, President Trump tweeted that he wouldn't allow that to happen "under my watch."
The twists and turns played out as Trump faced a firestorm of criticism for reportedly calling American Marines who died in World War I "losers" and "suckers." Trump vehemently denied the remarks, though several news organizations have cited sources saying he made the statements in 2018 during a trip to France.
Stars and Stripes remains popular among many members of the military and has bipartisan support in Congress, especially among those who served in the armed forces.
But a memo signed by U.S. Army Col. Paul Haverstick said the newspaper would be shut down by Sept. 30, the last day of the government's 2020 fiscal year. The memo gave no reason for closing the publication other than saying funding was not in next year's budget request.
The office of Defense Secretary Mark Esper "decided to discontinue the publication of Stars and Stripes as a result of the defense-wide review as outlined in the president's budget request for fiscal year 2021," the memo said. Trump then tweeted on Friday afternoon:
The United States of America will NOT be cutting funding to @starsandstripes magazine under my watch. It will continue to be a wonderful source of information to our Great Military!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 4, 2020
While Friday's developments created plenty of questions about the future of the newspaper, its fate will involve input from Trump, the Pentagon and Congress.
The White House budget request earlier did not seek funding for Stars and Stripes. But if Trump now wants that money for the newspaper, the Pentagon would likely go along.
Congress, meanwhile, has not finalized the Pentagon's 2021 budget, which was more than $700 billion this year. The House plan calls for continued funding for the newspaper, while the Senate version does not. Those plans will have to be reconciled and then signed by Trump.
Stars and Stripes, which is directed at members of the military, was first published for a brief time during the Civil War in 1861 and then again during World War I and its immediate aftermath, in 1918-19. It resumed operations during World War II and has been published continuously since then.
While the Defense Department funds the paper, Stars and Stripes has editorial independence and often publishes stories less than flattering for the military.
A top story on the website Friday was headlined, "More than 3,000 VA patients have now died from the coronavirus."
"Many of the active cases remain in southern states, after a surge of cases in the South earlier this summer," the story said. "Among the 10 VA facilities grappling with the most active cases, two hospitals are in Florida, two in Texas and two in Georgia. The North Chicago VA reported the most active cases Friday, with 198."
Since early this year, the Pentagon was sending signals that it might scale back or shut down the newspaper. The Pentagon said previously it would cut $15.5 million from its budget.
This prompted Democrats and Republicans to call for continued funding.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., wrote to Esper last month, saying that "as a veteran who has served overseas, I know the value that the Stars and Stripes brings to its readers."
Ernie Gates, the ombudsman for Stars and Stripes, told The Associated Press that closing the paper "would be fatal interference and permanent censorship of a unique First Amendment organization that has served U.S. troops reliably for generations."
Since becoming defense secretary, Esper has spoken to the press infrequently. Esper's uncle, George Esper, was a longtime AP correspondent best known for covering the Vietnam War from its early years to the end of the fighting in 1975.