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Top US general says Confederate leaders committed 'treason' and signals support for renaming bases

Washington(CNN) America's top general launched an outspoken attack on the Confederacy and signaled his support for the military renaming bases named for Confederate leaders on Wednesday, in his latest public comments that seem to put him at odds with President Donald Trump.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley did not hold back in an appearance before the House Armed Service Committee, stating that "those officers turned their back on their oath," referring to the names on the bases. "It was an act of treason, at the time, against the Union, against the Stars and Stripes, against the US Constitution."

Milley added that "the way we should do it matters as much as that we should do it," and he said he recommended establishing "a commission of folks to take a hard look at the bases, the statues, the names and all of this stuff, to see if we can have a rational, mature discussion" on this issue.

The remarks could set him on a collision course with Trump, who has made clear he will block any plans to rename the bases and has made exploiting racial and cultural divisions a key tenet of his reelection strategy. Last month the President tweeted that "These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage... Therefore, my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations."

The President has also threatened to veto a must-pass defense spending bill if it contains an amendment, initially offered by Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and added with the support of some Republicans, calling for the removal of the names of Confederate leaders from all military assets -- base, installation, facility, aircraft, ship, plane or other type of equipment -- within three years.

"I personally think that the original decisions to name those bases after Confederate generals ... were political decisions," said Milley, "and they're going to be political decisions today."

Pentagon drafting ban on displaying Confederate flag at bases

Milley's comments come as a draft policy document for a Defense Department-wide ban on displaying the Confederate flag has been circulating in the upper echelons of the military, according to a defense official directly familiar with the document.

Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger and the head of US forces in Korea, Gen. Robert Abrams, have already instituted bans on displays of the flag at Marine bases and in South Korea. The Navy, Army and Air Force military chiefs and their civilian counterparts have been working on similar bans.

The Army said that Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy had been open to holding a "bipartisan conversation" on renaming the installations. According to an Army official, there would need to be consultation with the White House, as well as Congress and state and local governments.

Milley was appearing before the committee alongside Defense Secretary Mark Esper for a hearing on the military's role in civilian law enforcement following the nationwide protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

Both Milley and Esper struck a starkly different tone from Trump's on the issues of race and inclusiveness in recent weeks.

During the hearing, Milley emotionally expressed outrage about the killing of Floyd and framed systematic racism as an issue that endangers military effectiveness.

"I have many policemen in my family. And I am personally outraged by George Floyd's brutal and senseless killing," said Milley. "We as a nation and as a military are still struggling with racism, and we have much work to do. We who wear the cloth of our nation understand that cohesion is a force multiplier; divisiveness leads to defeat."

Esper further admitted that the military has work to do to address systematic racism as well.

"The Department of Defense is not immune to the forces of bias and prejudice, whether seen or unseen, deliberate or unintentional," said Esper. "These issues have no place in our military, because they degrade the morale, cohesion and readiness of our force. ... The events of recent weeks are a stark reminder that much more work remains to be done."

Last month Milley warned that "divisiveness leads to defeat" in a speech to Naval War College graduates and counseled the audience to "eliminate anything that divides us."

That speech followed Esper's announcement of a major review aimed at improving diversity and "ensuring equal opportunity across all ranks" of the military.

Several defense officials with access to both Esper and Milley have told CNN that the two are deeply concerned about Trump attempting to politicize the military and potentially dragging the forces into the presidential election campaign.

CNN's Barbara Starr contributed to this report.