WASHINGTON — The Trump administration’s plan to decommission the carrier Harry S. Truman was dead on Capitol Hill for weeks, but the president put a final stake in its heart on Wednesday — on Twitter.
“I am overriding the Decommission Order of the magnificent aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman, built in 1998 (fairly new), and considered one of the largest and finest in the world. It will be updated at a fraction of the cost of a new one (which also are being built)!” Trump said in a post.
In Congress, where powerful lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were aligned against the cost-saving move, Vice President Mike Pence’s announcement of the reversal was welcomed with more than a few eye rolls. Lawmakers were mystified by the decision-making process and speculated that the White House simply saw the handwriting on the wall.
“I think they looked at the reaction that they got and how stupid it was to take something out of commission that has half of its life left,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla. “It falls into the category of: It’s the right thing to do.”
An ally and confidante of Trump, Inhofe had publicly and privately expressed criticism to Trump and Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton. Inhofe has said the nation needs at least 10 carriers to fight a major war and that retiring the Truman with 20 years left in its service life was fiscally unsound.
Democrats were even more pointed.
“I am glad to learn that the Trump Administration has finally joined a broad and bipartisan range of opponents against the Trump Administration’s own plan to retire an aircraft carrier that is only about half-way through its planned service life," said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.
Courtney noted that the administration had pulled the rug out from under Navy officials who had been defending the unpopular move in budget hearings for weeks. Indeed, the Chief of Naval Operations, Secretary of the Navy and incoming CNO had all defended the Truman decom plan within hours of Pence’s announcement on board the decks of the same carrier.
“The Trump Administration proposed to decommission the USS Truman in the budget request they submitted to Congress in March, and since then a successive series of Navy and Defense Department officials have consistently defended and justified this proposal — including in public hearings and closed briefings just this week,” Courtney said.
As of Tuesday, Courtney said his subcommittee had yet to receive any formal revision to the budget request for 2020, or to the Navy’s long-range fleet inventory plans and aircraft carrier force structure reflecting this change in position.
“I can only hope that we now have the Administration’s strong support as we prepare to mark up the 2020 defense authorization bill in the coming weeks and move ahead with our planned restoration of the refueling for the USS Harry S. Truman,” Courtney said.
Soon after Trump’s 2020 budget proposal was submitted in March, the public opposition from Inhofe and others made clear, as Courtney noted, that Congress was planning on its own to reverse plans to decommission the Truman. When major players in drafting the 2020 defense authorization bill expressed skepticism, if not outright opposition, the plan seemed utterly doomed from the start.
“I guess they discovered that their policy is not particularly good policy, or good anything,” SASC ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I., said of administration officials. “You presume when they send a budget up here they think through all of these consequences thoroughly, but that’s not the case with this administration.”
On Tuesday, lawmakers said they were unaware how the administration arrived at the decision to reverse itself.
“I’m not privy to that,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala. said, adding that Congress “didn’t want to do it. I think it’s bipartisan that the Truman has a lot more life. It’s not an old ship.”
“I thought all along that it would be in our interest to look at repairing, modernizing, whatever we need,” Shelby said. “That’s a good carrier and it could have a longer life. It’s powerful, lethal, and we are going to build more carriers.”
The unpopularity of the decom plan fueled speculation the Navy had proposed it only to bait Congress into adding back the money. On Twitter, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., derided the administration’s plan to retire the Truman decades ahead of schedule as, “a budget gimmick all along.”
“While I am glad the administration ultimately reconsidered this terrible idea, the incoherence here has not been good for morale or defense planning,” Warner’s post said.
At least one key lawmaker who’d made his opposition known, the former chairman of SASC’s sea power subpanel, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Ala., was not aware Pence’s announcement was coming.
“Oh, that’s wonderful news,” Wicker said Tuesday when informed by a reporter.
But Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, the top Democrat on the SASC Readiness subpanel, said he deduced what was coming when he learned of Pence’s agenda for the day, a visit with Norfolk's business leaders would include a stop on the Nimitz-class carrier.
“When I heard the V.P. was going to be on the Truman today,” Kaine said, “I thought he can hardly go out there and thank everybody and say what a great ship without an announcement like that.”
Kaine said that he pushed back hard in several conversations with Navy officials recently to reiterate his opposition to the carrier’s retirement.
“Every time we get a strategic posture hearing they talk about how important the carriers are … and then you get the budget and it’s not refueling the Truman,” Kaine said. “I’m assuming it was reported back to the White House that this was a non-starter with Republicans and Democrats.”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.