WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump is headed toward a veto showdown with Congress as the White House doubles down on his promise to scuttle a $740 billion defense bill unless it opens the door for new, unrelated sanctions against Silicon Valley – his second threat to kill the must-pass legislation.
With most leading Republicans and Democrats firmly united in their opposition to Trump’s demands, the president is waging an uphill battle that, if nobody blinks, could result in the first veto override of his presidency.
Trump threw the annual, must-pass measure authorizing the military’s operations into disarray late Tuesday with a pair of tweets taking aim at Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields technology companies from legal liability for the content posted by their users. Trump said the law should be “completely terminated,” claiming it is a national security risk. On Wednesday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany stressed to reporters that the president is “serious” about his threat to veto the legislation absent a repeal of 230.
But the overwhelming response from Congress – and notably, from Republicans – was unyielding.
“[Section] 230 has nothing to do with the military,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., a Trump ally. “I agree with his sentiments, we ought to do away with 230 – but you can’t do it in this bill.”
Some Republicans were even more pointed about their disdain for what many lawmakers viewed as an 11th-hour stunt.
“I will vote to override,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., an Air Force veteran, wrote on Twitter in response to Trump’s veto threat. “Because it’s really not about you.”
Trump’s fixation with rescinding Section 230 reflects the White House’s ongoing war with Facebook, Google and Twitter over allegations they are biased against conservatives – charges that the three tech giants deny. The president has ratcheted up his attacks against Silicon Valley in recent months as they have taken steps to flag misleading content more forcefully – including Trump’s myriad false contentions about the 2020 election.
Section 230 covers a diverse array of digital services, including large social-networking sites, newer conservative outlets like Parler, as well as mainstream news outlets including The Washington Post. There is bipartisan agreement that Section 230 as it stands is outdated and warrants reform – especially at a time when toxic content can spread virally at the ease of a click. But lawmakers have bristled at a full-scale repeal – and at the administration’s attempts to shoehorn it into the defense bill.
“I don’t think that the defense bill is the place to litigate that,” Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the Senate whip, told reporters Wednesday. “We have to pass the defense authorization bill … it’s the most important thing, arguably, that we do around here.”
This week marks the second time Trump has threatened to withhold his signature from this year’s bill, a measure Congress has passed for the last 59 years. The first time, in July, he pledged to oppose any defense bill that included an instruction to the Pentagon to change the names of military installations named after prominent Confederate leaders.
Both the House and the Senate passed versions of the defense bill over the summer that included such a mandate. Both passed by veto-proof majorities.
Nonetheless, Trump’s first veto threat set off a scramble in Congress as Inhofe and other Republicans sought to accommodate his demands. In the end, there was no capitulation to the president: The negotiated bicameral version of the bill, completed Wednesday, includes an order to change the base names within three years of the legislation’s passage.
Trump also has not repeated his threat to veto the defense bill over the Confederate naming provision since the negotiations were completed.
On Wednesday, copies of the compromise bill – without any repeal of Section 230 – began circulating among negotiators for their approval and signature. A senior Democratic aide said that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was ready to put the legislation on the floor.
That leaves Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., standing between the coalescing will of Congress and the temper of the outgoing president.
McConnell is not known for daring the president when he has issued explicit veto threats. The closest he came to doing so was in 2017, when he had the Senate vote on a package of sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea after then-White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci told CNN he “may sign the sanctions exactly the way they are, or he may veto the sanctions.”
The Senate has voted on a series of war powers resolutions despite Trump’s threat to veto them, but those were “privileged” measures that McConnell could not have prevented from consideration.
It is also rare for the Senate leader to flout the will of his committee chairs – especially when doing so might deep-six the defense bill, which he too believes is a must-pass piece of legislation.
Republicans close to the president have been working urgently to see if they can get Trump to back off his threat, or come up with an off-ramp to placate the president and avoid the dramatic spectacle of a veto clash so close to the end of the year and Trump’s presidency.
Though Trump has fixated on the defense bill, there are several other arenas on Capitol Hill in which Section 230 is being debated this week.
On Wednesday, a panel of Senate Republicans advanced the nomination of Nathan Simington to serve as a new GOP member on the Federal Communications Commission, overriding Democratic objections about his political independence. Simington played a critical role in crafting an executive order earlier this year that aimed to expand the government’s power to police political speech on the web. The widely panned directive has been challenged since over its constitutionality.
On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee also is expected to debate legislation taking aim at the Section 230 law. When asked about Trump’s veto threat, the chairman of that committee, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said, “I support him using all the leverage he can.”
A full repeal of Section 230, as Trump envisions, would have vast implications for the future of free expression. Its protections against lawsuits offer social networking sites the legal runway to moderate their services as they see fit, according to legal experts, who predicted a repeal could ultimately end up hurting Trump and his allies.
“There are a lot of conservative speakers that are indirect beneficiaries of Section 230,” said Matthew Schruers, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, a trade group that counts Facebook and Google as members. “There are a lot of conservative commentators whose brand is being on the edge. They may well be the first to suffer in a world where there are no Section 230 protections.”