President Trump spurned Democrats and Republicans alike on Wednesday as he left Washington defiantly for the holidays, vetoing a major defense bill, imperiling a COVID-19 relief package and setting the stage for a possible government shutdown after Christmas.
Mr. Trump vetoed the $740 billion National Defense Authorization Act as promised, citing among his objections that lawmakers didn’t honor his late demand to repeal legal liability protections for big social media companies such as Twitter, Google and Facebook.
The president also rejected a provision to rename military bases that were named for Confederates. He said he had warned Congress against “politically motivated attempts like this to wash away history and to dishonor the immense progress our country has fought for in realizing our founding principles.”
The president said the measure would so weaken his foreign policy and defense priorities that it amounted to “a gift to China and Russia.”
Even before the president sent back the bill, House and Senate leaders in both parties were planning to return to Washington next week to vote to override his veto. Democrats accused Mr. Trump of acting recklessly, especially after a major cyberhack of the U.S. government that top officials think was carried out by Russia.
After issuing the ninth veto of his term, Mr. Trump flew to his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, where he plans to stay until Jan. 3 as the final days of his presidency unfold. In his wake, he left a Republican Party increasingly willing to clash with him publicly.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, said the president’s valid concerns about Big Tech companies shouldn’t derail the annual defense bill that sets national security priorities. He called on lawmakers to override the veto.
“The NDAA has become law every year for 59 years straight because it’s absolutely vital to our national security and our troops,” Mr. Inhofe said. “This year must not be an exception.”
House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney of Wyoming also disagreed with the veto.
“In addition to hurting our troops, failing to pass the NDAA will have dire consequences for our national security,” she said. “This bill will help protect our nation against cyberattacks like the massive cyber operation recently launched against our government by Russia. It also contains some of the strongest measures in years to counter the Chinese Communist Party, which is responsible for the disastrous coronavirus pandemic.”
The president openly feuded this week with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Majority Whip John Thune of South Dakota after they publicly discouraged a plan by some House Republicans to block congressional certification of the Electoral College votes for President-elect Joseph R. Biden on Jan. 6.
Mr. Trump announced on Tuesday night that he wants Congress to “amend” a $900 billion coronavirus relief and economic stimulus package, after it had passed the House and Senate. While he stopped short of a veto threat, Mr. Trump demanded that lawmakers increase direct payments for individuals from $600 to $2,000, a move that many Republicans dislike but Democrats have embraced.
The House is scheduled to vote Thursday on a proposal to increase the direct payments to $2,000. But Senate Republican leaders gave no indication that they would accept the higher amount, having earlier rejected a proposal for $1,200 payments.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was only too happy to taunt House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Mr. McConnell to agree to the president’s new demand.
“More help is needed. Will McCarthy, McConnell & Republicans reject $2000 for Americans in crisis?” she tweeted.
She also urged Mr. Trump to sign the legislation to prevent a partial government shutdown next week.
“Mr. President, sign the bill to keep government open! Urge McConnell and McCarthy to agree with the Democratic unanimous consent request for $2,000 direct payments!” Mrs. Pelosi said on Twitter. “This can be done by noon on Christmas Eve!”
During a private House GOP conference call on Wednesday, Mr. McCarthy said he had spoken to the president and that Mr. Trump had not decided whether to veto the bill, according to a person familiar with the conversation. Another unidentified GOP lawmaker complained that Mr. Trump had thrown Republicans who voted for the measure under a bus.
Rep. Don Bacon, Nebraska Republican, said later in a statement, “The president’s secretary of treasury helped negotiate this bill and encouraged us to support it. Furthermore, the president was updated on this bill every step of the way by GOP leadership.”
Democrats will ask for the increased payments to pass by unanimous consent. But at least one Republican is expected to object to the move, which would stop the effort.
Congress already has approved a $1.4-trillion omnibus spending package, combined with the COVID-19 relief, by veto-proof majorities to keep the government open through September. But if the House and Senate don’t agree to Mr. Trump’s new demands, and the president doesn’t sign the currently passed measure, funding for government operations would run out Tuesday.
The coronavirus relief legislation also extends the expansion of jobless benefits that cover 12 million people. Those provisions expire on Saturday, the day after Christmas.
The legislation also would extend a federal moratorium on evictions through Jan. 31. Without it, the moratorium would expire Dec. 31.
The fight over the NDAA had been brewing since Dec. 1, when the president tweeted that he would reject the nearly completed bill if it lacked a repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields social media companies from liability for the way they police their platforms.
Mr. Trump has long accused Big Tech companies of bias against conservatives. And he said they no longer deserve the decades-old protection from lawsuits.
Twitter, for example, has increasingly flagged Mr. Trump’s posts about alleged election fraud as being unfounded.
“Section 230 facilitates the spread of foreign disinformation online, which is a serious threat to our national security and election integrity. It must be repealed,” Mr. Trump said in his veto message.
The president said in his veto message that his record on national security cannot be questioned.
“No one has worked harder, or approved more money for the military, than I have — over $2 trillion,” Mr. Trump told lawmakers. “During my four years, with the support of many others, we have almost entirely rebuilt the United States military, which was totally depleted when I took office. Your failure to terminate the very dangerous national security risk of Section 230 will make our intelligence virtually impossible to conduct without everyone knowing what we are doing at every step.”
The president also objected to a provision in the NDAA that he said attempts to restrict his authority to bring home troops from deployments.
“I oppose endless wars, as does the American public,” Mr. Trump said. “Over bipartisan objections, however, this act purports to restrict the president’s ability to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Germany and South Korea. Not only is this bad policy, but it is unconstitutional.”
Mrs. Pelosi called the veto “an act of staggering recklessness that harms our troops, endangers our security and undermines the will of the bipartisan Congress.”
“Disturbingly, Trump is using his final hours in office to sow chaos, including by denying our servicemembers a long-overdue pay raise and hazard duty pay; our families paid family leave, child care, housing and health protections; and our veterans the benefits that they need and deserve,” she said.
Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, co-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, slammed the president’s veto as “unconscionable.”
“The president’s decision to veto this bipartisan legislation on his way out the door poses a serious threat to U.S. national security,” Mr. Warner said. “I look forward to overriding the president’s fruitless and ridiculous attempt to undermine our national security over his shifting rationale for his decision to veto, including a provision to rename bases honoring Confederate military leaders — a provision that many in the president’s own party have supported.”
Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the veto “irrational,” noting that it provides more protections against cyber threats after a major hack of the U.S. government allegedly perpetrated by Moscow.
“From Confederate base names to social media liability provisions that have nothing to do with national defense to imaginary and easily refutable charges about China, it’s hard to keep track of President Trump’s unprincipled, irrational excuses for vetoing this bipartisan bill,” Mr. Reed said. “On the eve of Christmas Eve, this veto seems to be Trump’s parting gift to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and a lump of coal for our troops.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz, Florida Republican, said the president did the right thing by vetoing the measure, calling the bill “a slap in the face to the America First movement.” He said he will vote against a veto override.
“It greatly limits the president’s ability to remove troops from foreign lands, and to draw down endless, unconstitutional wars,” Mr. Gaetz tweeted. “Additionally, it does nothing to reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.”
The NDAA was approved 335-78 by the House and 84-13 in the Senate. Each chamber would need a two-thirds majority to override the veto.
The House has scheduled a vote Monday to override Mr. Trump’s action. If successful, the Senate would hold a vote Tuesday.