Why Is Trump Threatening America’s Defense Budget?

The president is pushing against a law that digital rights groups say protect social media firms.

U.S. President Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks in the Diplomatic Room of the White House on Nov. 26. Erin Schaff - Pool/Getty Images

Outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump is sticking to his habit of blowing up careful policy negotiations even in the waning days of his administration—this time over recent labels on Twitter and other platforms flagging his claims of election fraud as unproven. In a Tuesday night missive delivered via Twitter itself, the lame duck U.S. president threatened to veto the Department of Defense’s massive annual $740 billion defense authorization bill if it doesn’t include a repeal of a decades-old law protecting social media companies from legal liability over how they enforce perceived content violations on their platforms. 

“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,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday evening, as negotiations between the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate reached a critical stage. “Our Country can never be safe & secure if we allow it to stand.”

Both chambers of Congress appear eager to move forward with the bill despite the veto threat, which was Trump’s second warning that he could nix the bill after he tangled with Congress and members of his own administration, including former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, over language that would rename U.S. military installations named after Confederate generals, which is set to be included in the final bill. But tech experts worry that changes to the law could forever change the direction of free speech on the internet. 

Wait, so why the big fuss over this now? 

If you ask White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who spoke about the issue at a press conference today, Trump’s concerns about Section 230 stem from fears that Twitter and other social media platforms are saturated with Chinese disinformation and internet “vitriol”—even though the U.S. president himself has been repeatedly flagged for tweets blasting out untrue or false statements since the November election. 

But Trump has been trying to make significant changes to Section 230 for more than a year, when the White House issued an executive order that would have taken away the law’s protections for platforms—which are not legally liable for third-party content posted on their platforms—giving the Federal Communications Commission wider leeway to punish companies that remove or censor content. Conservatives have increasingly complained about being banned on social media, despite progressive complaints that policies at Facebook and other giants privilege right-wing groups. 

The issue came to a head late in the election season after social media sites moved to stop circulating a controversial New York Post story that claimed that then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden had used his role as vice president to enrich his son Hunter, based on purported communications from a laptop hard drive provided by Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. That led to a Justice Department letter to Congress advocating for sweeping legislative reforms. 

What does Congress think? 

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle want changes to the nearly 25-year-old law, which predates the founding of Facebook and Twitter by almost a full decade, but the timing and the politics of Trump’s request are tricky. Congress is moving forward with a final version of the National Defense Authorization Act, also known as the NDAA, the Pentagon’s aforementioned $740 billion bill, that does not include a repeal of Section 230, according to Politico. The Senate Judiciary Committee, led by another close Trump confidant, Lindsey Graham, is taking up legislation that would also reform the law. 

But it’s not just Republicans who have called for changes to Section 230: In January, Biden—now the president-elect—called for the law to be immediately revoked over fears that Facebook was allowing users to peddle falsehoods on the platform with no repercussions. Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal has also led a push to strengthen data privacy laws and signed on to legislation championed by Graham to force tech companies to “earn” legal liability protections under Section 230 in cases pertaining to child sexual abuse. 

Free speech and open internet advocates are highly opposed to any change. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, has called Section 230 “the most important law protecting internet speech” and insists that without the measure, companies like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter would not be likely to host user-created content and would have to constantly censor their platforms, undermining online creativity and innovation. The American Civil Liberties Union agrees, describing it as the reason “why websites can offer platforms for critical and controversial speech without constantly worrying about getting sued.” 

Will Trump go through with the veto threat?

It’s not clear—since the U.S. president appears to have cooled off on a threat to nix the defense bill over the provision renaming bases honoring Confederates. It would also be a historic and unprecedented move: The NDAA has passed Congress for 59 straight years, even amid budget caps for military spending put in place during the Obama administration. “As is the case every year, this agreement is the product of months of hard-fought negotiations,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, a Democrat, and the committee’s ranking member Mac Thornberry, a Republican, said in a joint statement on Wednesday. “This year we have toiled through almost 2,200 provisions to reach compromise on important issues affecting our national security and our military.”

But if Trump—ever the precedent-breaker—sticks to the veto threat, it could leave Congress in a major bind, jeopardizing months of fraught negotiations to fund the Pentagon. Though it could leave Trump allies in both chambers scrambling, major power brokers want to see the negotiations put to bed. Most Senate Republicans, including Trump ally and Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, have shown a desire to address the social media provision in separate legislation, a message that some lawmakers have conveyed personally to the president. Lawmakers are also keen to wrap up appropriations and authorization bills ahead of the Christmas holiday. 

Only five presidential vetoes have been overridden by Congress over the past three administrations, and none of those have occurred under Trump. But judging by the voting records on the NDAA this year, Trump may have a tough time convincing lawmakers to put their thumbs down on the bill, which would need a two-thirds majority in both chambers to overcome a veto. This summer, the House passed its version of the NDAA by a 295-125 margin, and the Senate cleared its version with an 86-14 vote, each comfortably above veto range.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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