President Donald Trump’s threat Tuesday to veto an annual defense bill unless Congress removes legal protections for social media companies drew swift, sharp bipartisan pushback from lawmakers who charged Trump was using leverage over the troops to settle personal scores.
Trump’s ultimatum and the fiery opposition it provoked sets up a showdown between Congress and the White House over legislation that would give troops a raise and set defense policy for the country.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told CNN that he plans to move ahead with a defense authorization bill – and it will not include provisions to repeal protections for social media companies, defying Trump’s veto threat.
Inhofe said he has relayed that message to the President in a private phone call.
Trump targeted Section 230 of the Communications Act, which protects internet providers and tech companies like Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms from being held legally liable for what is posted on their websites or how they manage the content. Trump has railed against Twitter recently, accusing it of “big Conservative discrimination.”
“If the very dangerous & unfair Section 230 is not completely terminated as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), I will be forced to unequivocally VETO the Bill when sent to the very beautiful Resolute desk. Take back America NOW. Thank you!,” Trump tweeted Tuesday night, claiming Section 230 is “a serious threat to our National Security & Election Integrity.”
‘I am disgusted’
The veto threat drew fiery opposition from both Democrats and Republicans, many of whom pointed to the fact that Section 230 has nothing to do with defense and criticized the President’s attempt to use troops and national security as leverage.
Rep. Paul Mitchell, a Michigan Republican who sits on the Armed Services committee, said in a Wednesday tweet that “as a member of House Armed Services I am disgusted with these threats to veto the NDAA. It is a strong bi-partisan DEFENSE policy bill. Not the place for a rush job last minute whack at social media.”
“‘Take it or leave it’ legislating is why Congress is broken,” Texas Republican Rep. Chip Roy tweeted. “Sec 230 should NOT be mixed with NDAA & used by @realDonaldTrump to veto.”
Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger tweeted his opposition to the threatened veto directly to the President. “I will vote to override,” Kinzinger said. “Because it’s really not about you.”
The Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Democrat Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, pointed to Trump’s well-known frustration with Twitter, which began marking the President’s tweets as disputed or misleading during the election campaign when they contained baseless or false allegations.
“To be clear, Mr. President, Section 230 repeal wasn’t included in the House OR Senate version of the NDAA. You’re mad at Twitter. We all know it,” Smith wrote in a tweet. “You’re willing to veto the defense bill over something that has everything to do with your ego, and nothing to do with defense,” he added.
Sen. Jack Reed, the leading Democrat on the Senate Armed Services committee, released a statement saying, “it would be irresponsible of President Trump to hold the well-being of our troops hostage because he doesn’t like what’s trending on Twitter.”
The Department of Defense declined to comment on Trump’s veto threat.
The Senate passed its version of the NDAA, which authorizes more than $700 billion in defense spending, by a veto proof margin of 86-14. The House passed its version of the NDAA by a vote of 295-125. For the last 59 years, the NDAA has been a bipartisan piece of legislation.
Pay raise for troops at stake
Both versions of this year’s bill include a 3% pay raise for US troops and myriad other provisions, none of which pertain to Section 230.
This is not the first time Trump has threatened to veto the NDAA. Previously, the President threatened the bill over provisions that would rename Army installations named after Confederate officers.
In spite of that, Inhofe said Wednesday that the bill will contain a Senate-passed provision to rename military properties that carry the names of Confederate leaders – and said that he had told Trump that as well.
“It hasn’t changed,” Inhofe said of the Senate-passed provision on renaming the bases. He said that he had previously vowed to kill the language because he had assumed Trump would be reelected.
“It looks that is likely not going to happen – so that changed the dynamics altogether.”
He added that he agrees with Trump’s desire to repeal section 230 that gives protections to social media companies, but he says it needs to be part of a different bill.
Trump and other Republicans have long complained that social media platforms unfairly censor right-wing viewpoints, despite denials by tech companies and a lack of credible evidence to support claims of technology’s systemic bias against conservatives.
That hasn’t stopped Trump and his allies from pushing for changes to Section 230, the legal shield that grants tech platforms immunity over many of their content moderation decisions.
Many of the proposed changes seek to expose social media companies to greater litigation over allegations of censorship.
As part of its legislative push, the White House provided its proposed changes to Section 230 to the Senate Commerce Committee, a committee aide told CNN. The Commerce Committee referred the White House language to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Axios has reported that the language has so far not been included in the NDAA. A spokesperson for the Armed Services Committee didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Trump has so far relied on executive authority to try to press for changes to Section 230. In May, he signed an executive order to petition the Federal Communications Commission for rules to “clarify” Section 230 as it applies to social media. Legal experts questioned the constitutionality of the order and raised doubts about the FCC’s jurisdictional authority; nevertheless, the FCC agreed to move forward with Trump’s request.
But the future of that effort is in doubt as Trump’s FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, has indicated he will step down in January, paving the way for President-elect Joe Biden’s own nominee. Based on comments by the FCC’s sitting Democratic commissioners, it’s reasonable to think that a Biden FCC would drop the Section 230 rulemaking altogether.
That leaves Congress as Trump’s only remaining avenue to push through changes to Section 230 while he’s still president.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow made clear on Wednesday that is exactly what Trump is doing, saying that the NDAA bill was “a vehicle” to make changes to Section 230 protections for social media companies.
Asked by CNN’s Joe Johns on Wednesday what Section 230 has to do with defense spending, Kudlow said, “it’s a vehicle, it’s a vehicle. You know, sometimes you hang things on larger trees.”
“The President has been talking – we’ve all been talking about this for quite some time. It’s certainly odd that big social media companies seem to be censoring certain points of view. And we don’t like that one bit. And therefore, that Section 230 of the telecom decency act … that needs to be changed. It needs to be changed. And that’s what we are looking for, and probably, a much, much more limited liability shield is the best way to go about it because we think they’re now editors and publishers,” he said.
But the bipartisan opposition to Trump’s proposal casts doubt on whether he will be able to use the defense bill to rein in social media firms.
The idea is likely to be a nonstarter anyway with Democrats, many of whom have their own problems with Section 230, but for very different reasons from Republicans. On Wednesday, Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden – a key architect of Section 230 – said Trump’s threat is all but doomed.
“I’d like to start for the Blazers, but it’s not going to happen either,” Wyden said in a statement. “It is pathetic that Trump refuses to help unemployed workers, while he spends his time tweeting unhinged election conspiracies and demanding Congress repeal the foundation of free speech online.”
This story has been updated with additional lawmaker comment.
CNN’s Manu Raju, Betsy Klein and Joe Johns contributed to this report