War Stories

Maximum Override

Trump says he’ll just ignore the parts of the new defense bill he doesn’t like.

Donald Trump signs something at a desk with service members standing behind him.
President Donald Trump signs the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2019 at Fort Drum, New York, on Monday.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

In his latest move to expand executive powers into new realms, President Donald Trump declared Monday night that he would ignore or override 51 sections of the $716 billion defense authorization bill that he’d signed just hours earlier.

It’s not unheard of for presidents to issue a “signing statement” that spins their interpretations on what certain aspects of a new law mean. But rarely have they, in effect, scratched out whole sections of a law, citing vast—and, in this case, clearly excessive—notions of a president’s constitutional powers.

Several newspapers reported on Trump’s signing statements on Tuesday, citing in particular his dismissal of sections restricting his ability to move closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin. One such section bans the funding of any activity that would recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea.

But Trump’s overrides went way beyond issues that might affect his relations with Russia.

One of the clauses that he cites as objectionable, Section 1233, expresses “the sense of Congress” that the U.S. “should support a Europe whole, free, and at peace” through strengthening such institutions as NATO and the European Union and that it should adopt policies to defeat Russian aggression.

A “sense of Congress” resolution explicitly has no binding authority whatsoever; it merely expresses an opinion. By definition, it cannot interfere with a president’s authority to conduct foreign policy. But apparently Trump’s hostility to NATO and the EU runs so deep that he couldn’t let this stand even as a token gesture.

Another clause that Trump wants to eliminate (Section 1665) allows, but does not require, the secretary of defense to estimate the cost of his nuclear-weapons program beyond the 10-year budget that he’s already published. Similarly, Trump says he’ll ignore the bill’s request for a briefing to Congress on the risks and dangers of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile program (Section 1257), a Pentagon report on special counterterrorism operations (Section 1031), a report on civilian casualties caused by Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen (Section 1265), and an itemization of how many U.S. troops are deployed in foreign countries (Section 595).

Again, these measures wouldn’t affect Trump’s policies one bit. They simply call for more information, to which Congress is unambiguously entitled—and which Trump wants to withhold, perhaps illegally.

A few challenged sections do place limits on spending. Section 1689 allows the acceleration of a hypersonic ballistic missile defense system, if funds are available, only after the Pentagon submits a cost estimate and a testing plan. Section 1036 forbids funds for transferring detainees from Guantánamo Bay.

It’s surprising that Trump, who has said Gitmo should be expanded rather than shut down, objects to that section. It seems he simply doesn’t want to let Congress box him in on principle. (If President Barack Obama had taken the same attitude, he would have ignored the same restriction and transferred the detainees at his own initiative—which, no doubt, would have sparked a motion of impeachment.)

In any case, Congress is well within its rights to attach conditions to spending bills. It routinely cuts, kills, or restores spending on specific weapons systems, even if the Pentagon has advised, or the president prefers, otherwise. The Vietnam War ended when Congress cut off funding for all its activities (though, by then, the last U.S. combat troops had long departed). This is what “the power of the purse” means.

It’s worth noting that this is not a confrontation between Republicans and Democrats but rather between the White House and Capitol Hill. The defense bill was drafted by the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, with compromises hammered out in a bipartisan House-Senate conference committee, then approved by both chambers. All of these bodies have Republican majorities.

What happens now is hard to say. One Armed Services Committee staffer regards the exercise as “Kabuki theater.” Trump issued a similar, but far less extensive, signing statement with last year’s defense bill; Congress ignored it, and so did, by and large, the Pentagon, releasing the reports that the bill had called for. However, the same staffer says this year’s signing statement “goes a bit overboard.” Another staffer expressed concerns that it might reflect Trump’s growing self-confidence in office and his growing eagerness, on many fronts, to assert the power of a monarch.