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Rebel with a lost cause

President’s objections to NDAA provisions put him outside political mainstream and run counter to what many GOP lawmakers think

Aerial view of the Pentagon on June 30, 2020.
Aerial view of the Pentagon on June 30, 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

President Donald Trump has leveled veto threats at both the House and Senate versions of the annual Pentagon policy measure, a bill loaded with so many politically popular provisions, such as a military pay raise, that it has been enacted for 59 continuous years.

Veto threats on the defense authorization bill are nothing new for this or any other administration, and yet the bill always becomes law. But what is unusual this year is Trump’s strong objections to both chambers’ versions of the bill, despite his own party’s control of the Senate.

Trump has grumbled about a lengthy and diverse list of provisions, most notably and publicly language in both bills that would require the Pentagon to rename military installations that pay homage to the Confederacy.

“Seriously failed presidential candidate, Senator Elizabeth ‘Pocahontas’ Warren, just introduced an Amendment on the renaming of many of our legendary Military Bases from which we trained to WIN two World Wars,” Trump tweeted June 11 as Warren worked to attach her language to the Senate bill during a closed-door markup. Warren’s bill includes a three-year time frame to change base names and extends well beyond just the names of the bases themselves.

But Trump’s objections, while perhaps appealing to his base in the run-up to the November election, put him outside the mainstream of American politics and run counter to what many Republican lawmakers think — a fact that essentially makes the president a rebel with a lost cause.

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Indeed, Trump ended his screed against Warren’s language with this: “Hopefully our great Republican Senators won’t fall for this!”

Senate Armed Services Chairman James M. Inhofe, a reliable Trump ally, dutifully but unsuccessfully opposed the Warren language in committee and pledged to water it down on the floor. But Republican leaders in the Senate, many of whom have said they support the name change, made sure the Oklahoma Republican and his like-minded lieutenants didn’t follow through. 

Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a descendant of a Confederate soldier, has said he is “personally OK” with exploring the name changes. Despite his familial connections to the Confederacy, McConnell, whose 2020 reelection race Democrats hope to put in play with a well-funded opponent, is likely reading the tea leaves on what is almost certainly a losing political position.

The country has been locked in a debate over race since the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police. Poll after poll has indicated that the majority of Americans support the nationwide protests sparked after Floyd’s death and disapprove of Trump’s handling of the situation.

Nonetheless, most Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee opposed an amendment to the bill (which ultimately succeeded) that would require the military base name changes within a year. But those who voted against it did so cautiously.

“My personal opinion is some, if not all, the names should be changed, but this is not about my opinion,” Mac Thornberry of Texas, the panel’s top Republican, said on July 1. “It should be about having the country, forcing a conversation about a more perfect union and that all men are created equal.”

Even with the Confederate language attached, all Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee supported the bill. On Tuesday, the majority of Republicans voted to pass the massive defense bill on the House floor.

And so, if the commander in chief were to follow through on his threat, particularly over the Confederate issue, he runs the risk of a resounding political defeat at a fraught time for his administration.

Congress, deeply divided though it may be, almost certainly has the votes to easily override a veto and bring the Armed Services panels’ impressive legislative streak to an even 60 years.

But it may not ever even get that far. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, who correctly predicted that the GOP-led Senate would preserve the Warren language over Trump’s objections, called the president’s bluff on the veto.

“Let me predict that President Trump will not veto a bill that contains pay raises for our troops and crucial support for our military,” the New York Democrat said on the floor July 1. “This is nothing but the typical bluster from President Trump. The NDAA will pass and we will scrub from our military bases the names of men who fought for the Confederacy, who took up arms against our country.”

Schumer may be right.

The NDAA passed the Senate on Thursday on an 86-14 vote, and the House on Tuesday on a 295-125 vote. That gives lawmakers plenty of cushion to override a presidential veto, a fact that will almost certainly weigh into Trump’s decision to turn his bluster into action.

On Friday, Trump tweeted that Inhofe assured him the provision wouldn’t be in the final bill. “Like me, Jim is not a believer in ‘Cancel Culture,’” Trump tweeted.

But with the language already in both bills, and senior Republicans not willing to go to the mat over the Confederacy issue, it’s unlikely Inhofe has the juice to do Trump’s bidding and strip the language.

Megan Scully is CQ Roll Call’s defense editor.

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