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Despite Trump Tweet, Order to Dissolve Stars and Stripes Not Yet Rescinded

A portion of the Stars and Stripes home page.
A portion of the Stars and Stripes home page.

Despite a tweet from President Donald Trump vowing to reverse his own administration’s budget plan to cut government funding for an independent military newspaper, Stars and Stripes employees say they remain worried because the order to defund the news outlet has not yet been rescinded by the Pentagon.

“There’s a great deal of anxiety in the staff,” Max Lederer, the publisher of Stars and Stripes since 2007, told VOA Tuesday. “A little less anxiety since Friday, but since it (the funding decision) is still not final, there’s a lot of concern.”

The Department of Defense spending plans, released in February, cut out all government funding for the paper for the 2021 fiscal year, which begins on October 1.

On Friday, President Trump tweeted that he planned to reverse the planned Pentagon budget cuts that would have ended the Stars and Stripes publication.

“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!” Trump tweeted.

The tweet came mere hours after media outlets reported on the Pentagon’s plans to dissolve the publication.

But the president’s tweets alone do not indicate policy or dictate law, and Lederer said the Pentagon is “still discussing” the status of the budget order.

The House of Representatives passed the Department of Defense Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2021 on July 31, 2020, which included additional funding for the publication. The Senate did not include funding for the publication in its defense spending bill, but both houses of Congress have resolutions supporting its mission.

A Defense Department memo by Defense Media Activity Acting Director Army Col. Paul Haverstick last month instructed the Stars and Stripes publisher to provide a plan of action “no later than September 15” to discontinue Stars and Stripes publications and dissolve the news organization “no later than January 31, 2021.”

In the case of a continuing resolution (CR) from Congress, which would prevent a government shutdown and extend funding temporarily, the memo (obtained by VOA) instructed the publisher to plan the “last date for publication of the newspaper” “based on the end of the CR or other circumstances.”

A bipartisan group of 11 Democratic and four Republican senators sent a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper last week, calling on the Department of Defense to maintain funding for the publication, which has more than 1 million readers.

“The $15.5 million currently allocated for the publication of Stars and Stripes is only a tiny fraction of your Department’s annual budget, and cutting it would have a significantly negative impact on military families and a negligible impact on the Department’s bottom line,” said the letter, signed by the senators.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, also sent a letter opposing the budget cut, citing strong support for Stars and Stripes in Congress.

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

Stars and Stripes started during the Civil War as a publication for Union troops. Today, it distributes to U.S. service members stationed across the globe, including in war zones.

Most recently, the publication shed light the Defense Department’s failure to shut down schools on U.S. military installations in Japan during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite Japanese public schools ruling shutdowns as necessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“Stars and Stripes tells the military’s story like no other publication can. It was held by GIs in the trenches of World War II and held by special forces members at remote outposts in Syria after being flown in by Osprey in the battle against ISIS,” Tara Copp, a reporter for McClatchy who was the Pentagon correspondent for Stars and Stripes from 2015-2017, told VOA.

“It is a rounding error (an inconsequential amount) to DOD, but it is much, much more than that to the men and women and their families who read it,” she added.

Copp said that the publication provides the time and resources to look into stories many other outlets do not.

For example, her in-depth investigation into the 2000 Osprey crash at Marana Regional Airport near Tucson, Arizona, for the publication in 2015 led to former Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work exonerating the two Marine Corps pilots who had been blamed for the crash.