NDAA underscores GOP differences with Trump on defense
Congress is poised to send President Trump an annual defense bill that breaks with him on policy after policy.
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes a requirement to strip Confederate names from military bases in three years, and excludes a repeal of a tech liability shield — two clear losses for Trump.
It separately takes aim at everything from Trump’s troop withdrawals in Germany and Afghanistan to his relationship with Turkey to even his signature border wall.
Taken as a whole, the bill Congress will vote on in the coming week reflects broad frustration with Trump as his presidency comes to an end, including from Republicans who don’t often publicly break with the president.
“The politicization of our military that has occurred under this administration has encouraged the Armed Services Committee to take its duly recognized responsibility to be a check on the administration as well as our responsibilities for oversight of the military” seriously, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who sponsored language blocking a Germany drawdown, told The Hill in an interview when asked about the compromise bill’s inclusion of several Trump rebukes.
Trump has threatened to veto the NDAA over the tech and Confederate names fights. The House is slated to vote on the bill Tuesday, and the Senate is expected to take it up shortly after that.
While Republicans have been reluctant to publicly challenge Trump during his presidency, the few notable times they have were on defense and foreign policy.
Five of Trump’s eight vetoes so far have been on foreign policy issues — the war in Yemen, arms sales to Saudi Arabia and tensions with Iran — though lawmakers were unable to override his vetoes.
House Democrats are predicting Congress would override his NDAA veto, with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) telling Bloomberg News in an interview that the lower chamber has the votes to override him.
Senate Republicans, though, have said they do not know if the requisite two-thirds of the chamber would be willing to override a veto.
Apart from the two issues provoking the veto showdown, the 4,500-page compromise, known as a conference report, is littered throughout with provisions challenging Trump on several fronts.
The language on Confederate-named bases was sparked by this summer’s racial justice protests, but that’s not the only thing in the compromise bill related to the protests.
The bill would require federal authorities to “visibly display” identifying information when responding to protests after heavy criticism of the Trump administration deploying unmarked law enforcement officers against demonstrators.
The NDAA also includes restrictions on the Pentagon program that transfers military-grade equipment sent to local police departments, though it is the Senate’s more narrow restrictions that were approved over stronger language sought by Democrats.
Specifically, the bill would limit the transfer of bayonets, grenades, weaponized tracked combat vehicles and weaponized drones, as well as require law enforcement to be trained in deescalation and citizens’ constitutional rights.
Trump’s moves to withdraw troops around the globe were also targeted in the bill, which would block drawdowns in Germany and Afghanistan until the Pentagon sends Congress assessments on the effects withdrawing troops would have.
The Germany language faced pushback from senators during negotiations, Gallego said. But disastrous Pentagon testimony in front of the House Armed Services Committee in September appears to have sealed his amendment’s fate, he added.
“When they actually came in open testimony and could not really rationalize these moves and got torn apart by both Democrats and Republicans and the ranking member, I think it was a very good sign that it built the pressure on the Senate side for it to pass,” Gallego said, adding the hearing showed “true bipartisan support” for his amendment.
The bill also keeps in a provision that was first approved in 2018 blocking any withdrawal from South Korea unless the Pentagon certifies it is in the U.S. national security interest.
The bill also requires an assessment on whether Russia has encouraged attacks on U.S. forces and a certification that no U.S. troops in Syria are being used “for the extraction, transport, transfer or sale of oil from Syria.” Trump has dismissed intelligence on a Russian bounty program for the Taliban to attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan and has said he only left troops in Syria “for the oil.”
Lawmakers also included in the NDAA mandatory sanctions on NATO ally Turkey for its purchase of a Russian missile defense system.
The Trump administration has criticized Ankara for buying the S-400 system and moved to boot Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program, but has not imposed sanctions despite being repeatedly pushed by Congress to do so. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is one of the global strongmen Trump has embraced even as Congress is increasingly fed up with Erdoğan.
The NDAA also includes a modest rebuke of Trump’s use of Pentagon funding on his southern border wall. The compromise includes House-passed language capping emergency military construction spending at $100 million annually for domestic projects. Trump took $3.6 billion from military construction funds to build the wall.
The compromise jettisoned some rebukes of Trump, including House-passed language to restrict a president’s Insurrection Act powers and block funding for a nuclear test. But this year stands in stark contrast to last year, when most of House Democrats’ efforts to box in Trump on defense policy were stripped from the final product.
Trump has not backed down from his veto threat. His recent threats also turned his ire to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has been a staunch Trump loyalist on everything but this year’s defense bill.
“Very sadly for our Nation, it looks like Senator @JimInhofe will not be putting the Section 230 termination clause into the Defense Bill. So bad for our National Security and Election Integrity. Last chance to ever get it done. I will VETO!” Trump said late Thursday in one of three tweets targeting Inhofe.
Inhofe — who told reporters earlier in the week he personally told Trump that while he agrees with repealing Section 230, the NDAA is not the place to deal with it — responded by holding firm on keeping it out of the bill.
“It’s unfortunate that members of Congress on both sides of the aisle disagree with the need for a full repeal – but, because of that, it is impossible to add a repeal of Section 230 to the defense authorization bill,” Inhofe added in a statement Friday that did not explicitly mention Trump’s tweets. “The only other option would mean that for the first time in 60 years, we would not have an NDAA. Without an NDAA, our troops would not get flight pay. They wouldn’t get hazard pay or any other specialty pay that requires annual authorization for our service members overseas [to] get what they need.”
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is a 1996 law that gives online platforms liability protection for content posted by third parties while allowing them to make good-faith content moderation efforts.
Trump and his Republican allies argue the law allows social media companies to discriminate against conservative content, though conservative content regularly appears at the most viewed content as social media sites such as Facebook.
But many Republicans have also made clear the NDAA is not the place to fight that battle.
“I don’t think the defense bill is the place to litigate that,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican.
Still, a few of Trump’s closest allies are supporting his fight, with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tweeting Friday that “we have a Defense Department to protect our liberty, but our liberty is at risk if we don’t change Section 230.”
Trump on Friday also appeared to reiterate his opposition to the language requiring the Pentagon to rename Confederate-named military bases and other property, though his tweet incorrectly described it as renaming “National Monuments in National Parks.”
If Trump does veto the bill, the calendar could make it tough for Congress to override him.
The House is officially scheduled to leave for the year this coming Friday, though Hoyer said this past Friday the chamber would stay until government funding and coronavirus relief bills are passed. The Senate is scheduled to leave the following week.
If the NDAA does not become law this year, lawmakers would need to start from scratch next year because a new Congress takes office in January. It would also be the first time in 60 years the NDAA fails to become law.
Staffers on the House and Senate Armed Services committees were reluctant to broach the topic of plans to override a veto in a background call with reporters this past week, with a senior Republican staffer on the Senate panel saying, “we’re still hoping there won’t be a veto.”
“The president will do what the president will do,” added a senior Democratic staffer on the House panel, “and then the leadership of the House and Senate will decide how they’re going to react should the president do something other than sign the bill into law.”