‘It’s A F**king Joke’: Capitol Hill Grapples With Trump’s Latest Veto Threat

Donald Trump said something egregious on Tuesday evening.

In itself, that certainly isn’t “news,” especially not in what’s passing for “reality” between now and Joe Biden’s inauguration.

I’ve gone to considerable lengths to be highly selective when it comes to covering Trump’s balderdash over the past six or so months. I have two primary concerns, and I’ll put them out there in plain language for a readership that’s grown materially in 2020.

First, quite a bit of what Trump says is objectively false. I don’t print falsehoods. Or certainly not deliberately anyway. More recently, his rhetoric, along with that of his associates, poses what I think most rational people would describe as an imminent threat to lives and property. One Georgia official held a press conference to say just that on Tuesday. Reprinting the rhetoric — even to decry it — risks perpetuating the threat.

Second, by virtue of being increasingly far-fetched, Trump’s rhetoric has become less and less relevant for markets and the economy (and thereby less and less relevant for readers) over time. Some recent assertions (e.g., allegations delivered during a Sunday phone interview with Fox’s Maria Bartiromo) are completely detached from reality. Trump has always had what many euphemistically describe as a “tenuous relationship with the truth,” but at this juncture, his various accusations and election-related protestations are pure fantasy. It’s not just that they have no “merit.” And it’s not even that they aren’t fact-based. Rather, the issue now is that what Trump says isn’t reality-based.

Given those two primary concerns, I’ve eschewed documenting Trump’s breathless tweets and various bombast. I don’t think it’s helpful, constructive, or relevant for serious people interested in serious analysis. And that’s what I try to provide each day: Serious analysis for serious people.

With that out of the way, Trump’s Tuesday evening tweet about social media’s liability shield deserves a mention in these pages, as it’s relevant for the companies in question and also for Congress.

For those who don’t subject themselves to Trump’s Twitter feed, the following was prominently “pinned” to the top of his timeline, which just means that anyone who came across his profile on Wednesday would read it first (before scrolling down to peruse an endless stream of what I’ll politely describe as “questionable” behavior):

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……….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!

Trump has, of course, spent the better part of a year attempting to dismantle tech’s liability shield for one very simple reason: To punish companies for their efforts to prevent him, GOP lawmakers, and right-wing provocateurs, from spreading misinformation and outright falsehoods to the public.

For social media giants, scrutiny of Trump’s behavior (and that of his allies, both in government and in the private sector) is in part aimed at making amends for 2016, when Facebook and Twitter were harnessed to undermine western democracies, both in the US and in Europe. Twitter has arguably been more earnest and aggressive in their efforts compared to Facebook which, by some accounts, is barely trying (see this recent piece in The New Yorker for example).

In late May, Trump issued a somewhat farcical executive order on social media “bias.” Virtually no one took it seriously at the time. I argued it needed to placed in the wider context of the president’s increasingly authoritarian leanings, especially considering recent efforts on the part of Twitter and Facebook to fact-check his manifestly false claims. For months, Twitter has placed warnings on his tweets.

Trump’s crusade against big tech is now more urgent for one obvious reason: He’s leaving office soon, one way or another. The tweet excerpted above is supremely ironic. Trump is threatening to veto the annual defense bill (a move which, definitionally speaking at least, is a threat to national security) on the excuse that Facebook and Twitter are a national security threat.

This isn’t the first time Trump has threatened such a veto. Over the summer, he caused a stir by pushing back against calls to rename US military bases which honor Confederate generals.

“A repeal of online liability protections first emerged last month after White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows floated a potential agreement in which Trump would drop his opposition to renaming military bases in exchange for repealing Section 230,” Politico notes, adding that while “House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith… conceded social media platforms had abused their immunity, he downplayed the likelihood of Democrats agreeing to Trump’s wholesale repeal” and told the Council on Foreign Relations that “the president’s motivation is transparent: He thinks social media was mean to him … and he wants to sue them.”

Clearly, this is beyond the pale. While I understand (and even sympathize with) many of the bipartisan critiques of big tech, this isn’t one of them, especially not when it comes to selectively flagging or removing content deemed dangerous.

If you read the linked New Yorker piece mentioned above, you’ll come away absolutely aghast (if not wholly surprised) at what’s still allowed in terms of hate speech on Facebook. If anything, social media should be encouraged to exercise draconian censorship up to and until the public understands that hate speech and misinformation aimed at undermining democratic institutions, is not “protected” anywhere, let alone on platforms where, if private enterprise means anything at all anymore, management is fully within their rights to flag or remove virtually anything they want.

While lawmakers from both parties have various concerns about the liability shield, Trump’s attempt to remove it using a veto of a must-pass defense bill is objectively dangerous for too many reasons to catalogue.

If you’re curious to know how Trump’s tweets on this issue are being described behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, one senior House staffer told Politico this: “It’s a f**king joke.”

“This is a complex debate that has no business as an eleventh-hour airdrop,” the person added.

On Monday, Axios documented “last-minute maneuvering” by Republicans, who are trying to cobble together several proposals that address bipartisan concerns, but the odds aren’t good. As far as Trump’s demand for a full repeal, that’s seen as totally implausible.


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22 thoughts on “‘It’s A F**king Joke’: Capitol Hill Grapples With Trump’s Latest Veto Threat

  1. Congress could override Trump’s veto. (Exception: “If the President withholds his signature during the 10-day review period allowed by the Constitution and Congress adjourns during that period, it is considered a “pocket veto” and the bill doesn’t become a law. The last pocket veto used by President Bill Clinton in December 2000.”) The idea of a bipartisan vote to override does not seem crazy to me.

    1. Just money I imagine. Not in a nefarious way. But her contract is, from what I understand, quite large. And I’m sure part and parcel of the job description is doing precisely what she’s doing. Obviously, that’s not to defend her. But just like most Fox folk, she’s more entertainer than anchor. And entertainers are highly paid.

  2. Presidential scholars must be saddened. They study presidents in the periods in which they served office. They understand what the climate and constraints were at the time past presidents succeeded and failed. They know here that they will be writing about a presidency that so undermined our democratic institutions as to threaten our democracy. The door is now open for someone more organized to come in and end it for us.

    A recent piece in a widely-read newspaper discussed the big lie in Germany after WWI. The famous “stabbed in the back” lie. The sub-tag line for the piece is Refusing to accept the truth about a loss killed German democracy.

    The same can happen here. We have to be very worried.

    Americans are going to have to work and fight for our democracy like the generations alive today have not done before. We cannot sit back and idle away our years as there are going to be people, Americans, working against our democracy. They want a future that executes on an American version of the “stabbed in the back” lie. We must be vigilant and stop this from occurring.

    I fully suspect this will be an easy administration for the scholars to rank. The climate and constraints of this time, though obviously with the usual stress at the American Achille’s heal, racism and inequality. Otherwise we were a hegemon (still), rich, though in decline, but unchallenged. Yet it happened.

    This presidency will surely be 45th out of 45. And then 46th out of 46 four years from now. We must not forget what has happened. We must always remind people, yes, even our family members who might disagree, that what happened was wrong four our country and for our future.

    (Personally, I’ll be curious to see if this is the presidential administration on whose watch the Chinese sling shot ahead of America economically and industrially.)

    Our government must now strive to enact policies that result in a steady increase in jobs and income for the 60% who feel left behind. Commensurate with this, investments have to be made that increase the future productivity of our country, investments that will help spur industries of the future.

    1. Actually, there is a second, widely read publication that also published a piece on the famous “Big Lie” in Germany. One of these came out on November 23rd. The other on November 30th.

      Both are worthy reads. Both are a kind of upside the face to an America that mostly assumes we could never lose our democracy.

      The pieces provide an example of what one, potential path forward for America looks like. The path is dark and would be created by lairs, cheats, and scoundrels, and fueled by masterful use of propaganda.

    2. TBH, not to go all Marxist-Leninist on you gents but I am not sure the West in general and the US in particular can avoid a descent in soft fascism.

      Wealth/income inequality and racism/irrational fear of immigrants are priming us for it and we can’t seem to convince our elites/rich people (and even poor people!) that 1- we need more redistributive taxation and 2- that immigration may need to be handled a bit more delicately than it’s been done so far.

      If liberal democracy can’t reform itself, autocrats and tinpot dictators will get many more opportunities to destroy it.

  3. This is a really well thought out and incisive article on section 230. It obviously needs to be reviewed by the government but as you clearly state – not this way. Fox is not a serious news outlet- it is entertainment with news attached to service the entertainment division. The only real substantial part of Fox is their polling which is one of the best out there. Look at some of the anchors there- forget Bartiromo- Lou Dobbs for example is just a partisan hack. He left the house of journalism long ago….

  4. Isn’t there a certain irony that DT fights against the wrongs he perceives from tech and social media on his Twitter feed? Hasn’t somebody told him? The most common characteristic of every action taken by the persident and congress in the last four years is purposely designed to hurt selected individuals and groups. He wants to inflict pain on everyone he sees as “losers,” opponents, people who might be better than him … the list is endless. Nixon had a list like Trump’s but there were people in his time who protected our country from his wrath. Not so with Trump, not anymore. That’s why it surprised me when Barr grew a pair overnite and said he can find no evidence of vote fraud. That must have gotten a sharp outburst from his master and a sharp tug on the leash.

    1. Barr’s probably thinking about employment post Jan 20. I wouldn’t spend a lot of time looking for recently descended testicles.

  5. The $64,000 question is what will it take for the 67- 75% (my approximation) of Trump supporters to realize they are voting against their own interests…?

  6. As a tech worker, I find what social media has allowed to occur on their platforms completely appalling. To your point, hate speech has been running rampant for years. There was a genocide incited in Myanmar on Facebook and Zuckerburg didn’t even bat an eyelash.

    The hate speech problem can be solved simply through automation. In fact, there already exist tools that parse message text and look for specific types of speech and tone. It would be pretty simple for the engineering masses in big tech to automatically parse for and block hate speech. The problem isn’t if it’s possible it’s that it doesn’t benefit these companies monetarily to do so. They will lose that user base and thus that advertising revenue. Because, and never forget this, when it comes to social media, you are the product.

    But, this whole veto military spending nonsense (“I love the military”?) is not the right reason to be trying to repeal these protections. Trump has been whining about unfair tech companies his entire presidency. Mark Zuckerburg is having secret dinners with GOP members and staff while right wing conspiracy theories run rampant on his platform and Trump whines because not 100% of everything on there is flattering to him. I mean at this point how wasn’t “Isn’t it ironic” written specifically for the GOP? But I digress, I expect a tech reckoning under Biden. Social media’s faults have already been detailed. Tesla is rolling out “Autopilot” products that are not safe, not tested, and definitely not “autopilot”. Amazon is the anti-trust villains from the 1900’s come back to life. There will be a tech wreck, it’s a matter of when not if.

    1. Great comment.

      When I was reading your comment, what came to mind was the cover of MIT Technology Review, Vol. 115, No. 6. Buzz Aldrin is on the cover. “You promised me Mars colonies. Instead, I got Facebook.”

    1. As far as Trump is concerned, they swore the wrong oath. He would want something like:

      “I swear to God this holy oath
      that I shall render unconditional obedience
      to the Leader of the United States of America and people,
      Donald J Trump, supreme commander of the armed forces,
      and that as a brave soldier I shall at all times be prepared
      to give my life for this oath”

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