In a stinging, albeit expected, rebuke, the Senate on Friday overruled Donald Trump’s attempt to defund the US military in pursuit of a petty grudge against America’s social media giants.
On December 23, Trump made good on previous threats to veto the annual military spending bill citing a litany of ostensible national security concerns, none of which were plausible enough to obscure the obvious: The White House was effectively holding the defense bill hostage in a far-fetched bid to kneecap a handful of tech companies Trump claims conspired against his presidency.
Trump has long sought to strip big tech of its liability shield, and while there’s no shortage of support on Capitol Hill for pursuing Section 230 reform, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were loath to tie the issue to defense spending. The optics were bad, to put it mildly.
Last month, in remarks to Politico, one senior House staffer summed up Congress’s feelings about the situation. “It’s a f**king joke,” the aide said.
Maybe so, but one person who wasn’t laughing on Friday was Trump. “Our Republican Senate just missed the opportunity to get rid of Section 230, which gives unlimited power to Big Tech companies. Pathetic!!!”, the president seethed, in a tweet. As ever, the irony of using Twitter to complain about Section 230 seemed to elude Trump.
The military bill has passed every year for six decades. Only seven GOPers voted to sustain Trump’s veto. The tally was 81-to-13. In the House, where lawmakers voted to override Trump earlier this week, the margin was 322-87.
Simply put: There was almost no appetite for this. It was never entirely clear whether Trump believed his veto had a chance. I suppose he can’t be blamed for thinking the odds of compelling Republicans to sustain it were perhaps better than anyone was prepared to admit last month. After all, the party has metamorphosed into something of a personality cult over the past four years. But if Trump was counting on that dynamic, he miscalculated, at least on this issue.
The defense bill will now become law. Unlike Trump’s endless election litigation, there is no other avenue for him to pursue. This battle is lost. In his objections to the bill, Trump also famously opposed rebranding (if you will) military bases named for Confederates.
Complicating the situation immeasurably, the Section 230 debate was also entangled with Trump’s demands for larger stimulus checks. Mitch McConnell shot that down this week as well, despite support in the House and the prospect that upsizing the direct payments may have helped the GOP in the Georgia runoffs. David Perdue — who’s quarantining after a member of his campaign tested positive for COVID — wasn’t present for Friday’s vote. Neither was Kelly Loeffler.
Chuck Schumer, Bernie Sanders, and Josh Hawley (who this week said he’d join the hopeless effort to object to Joe Biden’s Electoral College win) again tried to get a vote on the larger direct payments demanded by Trump. Hawley and Sanders apparently offered to vote on a bill rolling up Trump’s trio of demands, including the upsized checks, Section 230 repeal, and a review of election integrity, but to no avail. John Thune stood in the way. That prompted Trump to suggest, in a separate tweet, that South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem should mount a primary challenge against Thune, who last month warned that efforts to overturn the election were destined to “go down like a shot dog.”
It wasn’t immediately clear whether Trump’s Friday tweet, aimed at Thune, was motivated mostly by the senator’s comments about the futility of the election challenge, his objections to the higher stimulus payments, or both.
Commenting, Thune essentially laughed at the president. “Well, finally an attack tweet! What took him so long? It’s fine – that’s the way he communicates,” Thune said. “I’m not sure what I did to be deserving of all that, but that’s fine.”