WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump has again threatened to veto this year’s defense policy bill, this time if lawmakers will not meet his last-minute demand to include language to overhaul the tech industry’s prized liability shield: Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.
Trump’s veto threat by tweet late Tuesday adds pressure to closed-door talks between the House, Senate and White House, which were close to finalizing the sweeping 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. Not only is Trump pushing for a political win, but Tuesday’s bombastic public demand may also change the public focus from his prior threat to veto the bill for requiring several bases named after Confederate leaders be renamed.
Democrats are expected to oppose the move. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., ripped Trump in a tweet Wednesday:
“You’re mad at Twitter. We all know it. You’re willing to veto the defense bill over something that has everything to do with your ego, and nothing to do with defense,” Smith said, noting that Section 230 repeal wasn’t included in the House or Senate version of the NDAA.
Section 230’s protections have served as a bedrock for unfettered speech on the internet, but Trump and other politicians, including Democrats (though for different reasons than Republicans) argue that Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms have abused that protection and should lose their immunity from lawsuits.
In an escalation of his war with Twitter and other social media companies, Trump signed an executive order in May challenging those protections. He argued that Twitter’s application of fact checks to two of his tweets showed the need to enact checks on tech giants.
“Section 230, which is a liability shielding gift from the U.S. to “Big Tech” (the only companies in America that have it - corporate welfare!), is a serious threat to our National Security & Election Integrity. Our Country can never be safe & secure if we allow it to stand,” Trump said in the first of two tweets on Tuesday.
“Therefore, 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!”
Shredding 230 would be an eleventh hour victory for Trump and Republicans just ahead of a Senate runoff elections in Georgia that will determine control of the chamber during the first two years of President-elect Joe Biden’s tenure. But Democrats may not want to make a deal ― not only because they object to the policy but because Trump vetoing the defense policy bill, which has passed Congress on a bipartisan basis for 59 years in a row, could be a self-own for the GOP.
The fight over Section 230 complicates predictions that lawmakers were days from finishing the $740.5 billion authorization bill, which cements decisions about troop levels, new weapons systems and military personnel policy. Axios was first to report that Senate Republicans were trying to improvise a proposal to change Section 230 short of a wholesale repeal.
The issue was injected into NDAA talks, according to a senior Senate staffer, after Senate Armed Services Committee Republicans had reached out to Commerce Committee Republicans in search of a trade for Trump to drop his veto threat over base renaming. Democrats have insisted renaming stay in the bill while congressional Republicans have called for compromise, arguing that the incoming Biden administration can do the renaming without a legal change.
On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., chided Republicans for not bucking the president on the renaming issue and bringing the bill to a vote. “There’s no reason to further delay a pay raise of our living military heroes because President Trump wanted to honor dead Confederate traitors.”
Though White House chief of staff Mark Meadows reportedly offered last month that Trump could drop Trump’s objection to the renaming requirement if Democrats would agree to repeal Section 230, discussions Tuesday before Trump’s tweet were said to center on White House-drafted language that falls short of a full repeal.
The matter was said to be in the hands of congressional leaders. To include the language means navigating objections from Smith, as well as any Republicans or Democrats that might object to it or obstruct the NDAA because of it.
The White House proposal bore some similarities with a Republican bill from Sen. Roger Wicker, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, but Wicker’s panel has never reached agreement on the issue. Senate Commerce Committee members on the left and right have offered at least six competing proposals to reform Section 230.
“Let’s use our wildest imaginations and say the White House language gets accepted by Democrats and they’re not going to object and bring the bill down,” said the senior Senate staffer. “At the end of the day, there’s other individual members of the Senate who could very much gum up the works, and from both [political] extremes.”
On Twitter, Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz said in tweet Wednesday fell short of the serious attention the issue needed from Congress.
“I have written a bipartisan bill to reform section 230 but the idea that it should be repealed, with no hearing, in the defense bill, is goofy,” the tweet said. “You will know who is serious about policy making in this space by whether or not they reflexively agree [with] Trump here.”
Lawmakers were worried the bill may not be passed before the new Congress in January, and Smith told Politico this week that punting to the new Congress isn’t feasible for a number of political and procedural reasons. “It’s a brand new Congress. The bill disappears and we’d have to go back through the process,” Smith reportedly said.
Last year, over the objections of some Republicans, Democrats and the White House agreed on language establishing paid parental leave for federal workers ― inserted by Democratic leaders through a self-executing rule in the House and not a vote. Smith and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said after that they hoped in this year’s bill to avoid provisions unrelated to defense, if they’re a hindrance during negotiations.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.