On Friday, the Pentagon released a new policy that would ban the display of the Confederate battle flag without explicitly mentioning it.
The policy specifies which types of flags are allowed, a list that does not include the Confederate flag, thereby effectively banning it.
“We must always remain focused on what unifies us, our sworn oath to the Constitution and our shared duty to defend the nation,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper wrote in a memo laying out the new policy. “The flags we fly must accord with the military imperatives of good order and discipline, treating all our people with dignity and respect, and rejecting divisive symbols.”
The policy attempts to walk a fine line between removing a symbol that stokes racial tensions and not drawing the ire of President Trump, who has defended the display of the Confederate flag as a free speech issue.
In addition to the American flag, Esper’s new policy allows flags that promote “unity and esprit de corps” such as state flags, military service flags, the POW/MIA flag and flags of allied countries.
The policy applies to the display of flags in public spaces on all Pentagon property, including office buildings, naval ships, aircraft, common area of barracks, school houses and porches of military housing, according to the memo.
The display of unspecified “unauthorized flags” is still allowed in museum exhibits, on state-issue license plates and at grave sites, monuments and other historical or educational displays, the memo added.
The Confederate flag has increasingly become a flashpoint nationwide amid protests over racial injustices following the May 25 killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died in Minneapolis police custody.
In the military, the Marine Corps finalized a ban of the flag during the height of the Floyd protests, and the Navy quickly said it would follow suit. U.S. Forces Korea also banned the flag last month, and U.S. Forces Japan revealed this week that it too had banned the flag.
But Trump has dug in on defending the display of Confederate symbols and statues. Earlier this month, he ripped into NASCAR for its decision to ban the flag.
Trump also publicly rebuked the Army after it said was open to renaming bases that are named after Confederate military officers.
Several reports earlier this month said a draft of the flag policy circulating at the Pentagon would have explicitly banned the Confederate flag.
Esper is already said to be on thin ice with Trump after he came out in opposition to deploying active-duty troops against protesters, something Trump had repeatedly threatened to do.
The move on the flag comes after Congress took steps to try to force the Pentagon’s hand on the issue. The House version of the annual defense policy bill would ban the Confederate flag outright on all Pentagon property.
The Defense Department, like the rest of the nation, has been grappling with racial disparities. Earlier this week, Esper announced several other steps to address the issue, including the removal of photos from packets used to choose promotions and reviewing grooming standards for racial bias.
“What has always united us remains clear — our common mission, our oath to support and defend the Constitution, and our American flag,” Esper wrote in the flag memo. “With this change in policy, we will further improve the morale, cohesion, and readiness of the force in defense of our great Nation.”