Rebecca Grant: Congressional override of Trump’s defense bill veto was inevitable. So why did he veto?


The 81-to-13 Senate vote Friday to override President Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was Trump’s veto Dec. 23, coming from a president who has prided himself on increasing defense spending and supporting our troops.

Why did Trump — despite his successful efforts to improve military readiness and speed up advanced weapons programs neglected by President Barack Obama’s administration — veto the NDAA? The president had to know that both houses of Congress would override his veto of the must-pass bill authorizing $740 billion in defense spending.

The House of Representatives overrode the president’s veto Monday by an overwhelming vote of 322-to-87. While Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate disagree on many things, they are united in understanding that the NDAA is absolutely vital to our national security. In fact, the annual defense bill has passed with bipartisan majorities for 60 years straight.

SENATE VOTES TO OVERRIDE TRUMP’S NDAA VETO

Congress has not overridden a Trump veto in his four years in office before doing so on the NDAA. The first successful override gave Democrats the opportunity to gloat.

“The full United States Congress, with these sweeping and overwhelmingly bipartisan votes, has delivered a resounding rebuke to President Trump’s reckless assault on America’s military and national security,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement after the Senate vote Friday. “Instead of keeping Americans safe, the President continues to use his final moments in office to sow chaos and undermine our security.” 

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The sprawling defense bill authorizes programs and troop strength; the actual money comes from a separate appropriations bill. As a result, the NDAA is sometimes used as a bully pulpit for Congress to appoint commissions, authorize programs and make statements on other Defense Department issues. It can get a little theatrical.

This time, President Trump took center stage to fight back on three big issues: the commander in chief’s authority to bring home troops; the renaming of military bases named for Confederate leaders who fought against the Union in the Civil War; and the totally unrelated problem of reining in Big Tech.

Here are the elements that irked Trump:

Troops in Afghanistan and Germany

The NDAA enacted by Congress over Trump’s veto stops the president from withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Wait, Congress is forcing the military to stay overseas? Strange but true.

Last summer the Trump administration was discussing future plans to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 8,600 to 4,500 in the wake of the peace deal with the Taliban.

Reps. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and Jason Crow, D-Colo., pushed through an amendment to the NDAA barring the Pentagon from spending money to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan below 8,000 until a long list of conditions are met.

Tying the president’s hands like this by legislating troop numbers in overseas operations is a bad idea. Making it all the more ridiculous is that other NATO nations still have 11,000 troops in Afghanistan.

The NDAA also put a hold on drawing down U.S. forces in Germany from 34,500 to 25,000. Never mind that there’s a whole new American military base farther east in Poland challenging Russia.

Regardless of whether a Republican or Democrat is president, Congress is wrong to interfere with operational decisions like these.

Military base names

The NDAA authorizes $2 million to set up a commission to study the issue of renaming military bases named after Confederate leaders.

This is a standard Washington evasion of a hot potato, and a slightly bizarre one, because the president already has the power to name or rename military bases. President Trump could rename any base right now. Once Biden becomes president Jan. 20, he will have the same ability.

In fact, President Obama squashed the issue of base renaming in June 2015 after a Time Magazine article by Mark Thompson pointed out nine Army posts were named for Confederate generals.

 “Every Army installation is named for a soldier who holds a place in our military history. Accordingly, these historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies,” said the official Pentagon statement June 24, 2015. That was then — but the issues is much bigger now.

Biden has already said he favors renaming bases. The commission has 45 days to hold its first meeting. 

Liability protection for Big Tech

Trump’s primary reason for vetoing the NDAA seems to be his determination to punish social media companies, which he argues have unfairly censored conservatives and been supportive of Democrats.

The president demanded that the NDAA repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Section 230 shields social media companies from liability for content posted by users, treating them in many ways like telephone companies that simply convey messages without any responsibility for the content of those messages.

While individuals can be sued for libel for false and defamatory comments they post on social media, the social media companies themselves are shielded from liability under Section 230. The companies argue that it is impossible for them to review the millions of posts that people put on the sites every day.

However, the companies have acknowledged that they have ranking policies and policies to tag what they determine are inaccurate posting.  YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki gave an interview to CBS on Dec. 16 and admitted that “we decide what’s on our site,” but defended it as curating and “a decision to be responsible.”

Likewise, Twitter has ranking models and takes many other steps for what the company calls “serving healthy public conversation.” 

These actions give strength to the argument that the social media giants are more like newspaper publishers, who can be held liable for what they publish.

But as important as the future of Section 230 is, it has nothing to do with our nation’s defense. It’s clear that even many congressional supporters of repeal of the provision were not willing to block approval of the vital NDAA over the dispute over Section 230. 

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., told President Trump there was no way to include Section 230 repeal in the NDAA. Inhofe is actually 100% in favor of repeal. But the senator said in a Dec. 4 statement that he didn’t have the votes to include the repeal in the defense bill.

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There’s no doubt that Inhofe is right. But I think Trump had a point. The president succeeded in raising public awareness of the need to repeal or at least modify Section 230. If he would have been able to get the repeal included in the NDAA he would have forced members of Congress to take a position on the issue.

Trump’s veto was a blow to Inhofe, who has been enormously helpful to the president on Defense Department issues. In fact, you could read the veto as a slap at both Inhofe and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Trump, Inhofe and McConnell are correct when they argue that YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and other Big Tech companies enjoy protections enacted before the Internet, social media and smartphones changed our world. Canada, Japan and most European nations don’t give protections to social media platforms as broad as Section 230.

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Once again, Trump lit the fire. It was unconventional leadership. But it was leadership. If the Republicans hold the Senate, watch for them to act on Section 230 reform amid Big Tech howls.

Meanwhile, when Biden becomes president Jan. 20 he will find his hands tied by the NDAA should he wish to bring troops home. And that’s what comes of Washington grandstanding on the National Defense Authorization Act.

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