President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump walk to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020, in Washington.

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump walk to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020, in Washington. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Trump Vetoes Defense Authorization Bill

For the Confederacy, conservative speech, and the desire to bring troops home, Trump rejected the $700 billion NDAA at the last minute before Washington breaks for Christmas.

President Donald Trump waited until the late afternoon before Washington empties for Christmas break to veto the annual defense authorization bill over issues ranging from war powers to celebrating the Confederacy. 

In a statement explaining his reasons, the president praised himself as much as he criticized Congress and Democrats for sending to his desk a bill that instructs the Defense Department to begin replacing the Confederate names of several major U.S. military bases, does not make it easier to sue social media platforms he believes are slanted against him, and restricts his ability to bring U.S. troops home from wars abroad, which he argued was “unconstitutional.” 

“No one has worked harder, or approved more money for the military, than I have,” Trump said in a statement peppered with partisan talking points to justify his historic veto of the typically noncontroversial defense authorization bill. The House passed the bill earlier this month, 335-78; the Senate by a veto-proof 84-13.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called Trump’s veto “an act of staggering recklessness that harms our troops, endangers our security and undermines the will of the bipartisan Congress.” Pelosi added, “Next week, December 28, the House will take up the veto override with bipartisan support.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., sided with the president, saying he would not support a veto override if the House does not separately address the Section 230 provision. 

Trump also called the bill “a ‘gift’ to China and Russia,” and repeated a favorite false claim: “We have almost entirely rebuilt the United States military, which was totally depleted when I took office.” 

The lame-duck president then addressed the three main provisions his veto really is about. First, he wanted Congress to write into the defense bill a repeal of Section 230 of a 1996 of a communications bill that has nothing to do with the military but is viewed as the basis for the free and open Internet by some, and as an unfair shield for social media companies by others. Trump wants more federal power to sue Twitter, Facebook, and other tech companies that conservatives claim, against evidence, have skewed digital media and information platforms against them. 

Trump, whose 2016 campaign was boosted by Russia’s infiltration of social media, spent his four years in office trying to discredit the U.S. intelligence community and its detailed warnings about foreign disinformation spread on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. On Wednesday, the president said that Congress’s failure to repeal Section 230 “facilitates the spread of foreign disinformation online, which is a serious threat to our national security and election integrity.”

Second, without using the words Confederates, Civil War, slavery, racism, or historical revisionism, Trump’s veto statement addresses this year’s Black Lives Matter-inspired outcry, and pressure from within his own defense and military leaders at the Pentagon, to change the names of U.S. military bases that were named for Confederate leaders in the early 20th century. 

“I have been clear in my opposition to politically motivated attempts like this to wash away history and to dishonor the immense progress our country has fought for in realizing our founding principles,” Trump said. 

The statement repeated a framing invented by White House officials and conservatives this summer that the names of bases used to train troops for World War II are too sacred to change.

Finally, the president protested Congress’s attempts to slow-roll his orders “to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Germany, and South Korea. Not only is this bad policy, but it is unconstitutional,” he said. “The decision regarding how many troops to deploy and where, including in Afghanistan, Germany, and South Korea, rests with him. The Congress may not arrogate this authority to itself directly or indirectly as purported spending restrictions.”

As in previous years when the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, was in jeopardy of not passing on time, members of Congress argued the president’s veto showed he was acting against giving troops and families their paychecks. That money always comes, as sure as the hackneyed line. But this year, there were other lines of attack for the president’s critics, including the recent cyber attacks that Trump administration officials have attributed to Russia. 

“From Confederate base names to social media liability provisions that have nothing to do with national defense to imaginary and easily refutable charges about China, it’s hard to keep track of President Trump’s unprincipled, irrational excuses for vetoing this bipartisan bill,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the Senate Armed Services Committee’s ranking member. 

Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., a close ally of Trump’s who opposed his veto, said, “The NDAA has become law every year for 59 years straight because it’s absolutely vital to our national security and our troops. This year must not be an exception. Our men and women who volunteer to wear the uniform shouldn’t be denied what they need — ever.” Inhofe said the Section 230 repeal should come in other legislation.

“All of this because he has a gripe with social media companies for holding him responsible for spreading disinformation on his social media platforms. This isn’t just shameful; it is downright dangerous,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The Kremlin is actively attacking our cyber networks. Instead of standing up for our national security, the President is downplaying Russia’s involvement – which contradicts U.S. intelligence – and now he just vetoed legislation that contains actionable items that we can use to hold Putin accountable for this kind of belligerent behavior.”

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said in a statement, “The President has cited a variety of different reasons to explain why he opposes this bill, but each excuse is either patently false, wholly unrelated to the military, or antithetical to America’s values.”

Trump’s veto also drew a rare rebuke of the president from the typically apolitical defense industry. 

“The president’s veto undermines our national security preparedness and jeopardizes the jobs of Americans who make up our defense industrial base at a time when the country is in crisis. It is also a letdown for our troops and their families, both of who selflessly continue to serve our country. We urge Congress to prioritize national security and override this veto,” said Eric Fanning, CEO of the Aerospace Industry Association, who formerly served as secretary of the Army and the Air Force, under President Obama.

Trump and First Lady Melania Trump departed the White House later in the afternoon, ignoring reporters’ shouted questions about his veto. They will spend Christmas in Florida.