Trump Signs Annual Defense Policy Bill, Lists Many Things He Doesn't Like About It

Aug 16, 2018
Originally published on August 16, 2018 6:54 pm
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Earlier this week, President Trump put on a display of some executive second guessing. First he publicly signed a massive annual defense policy bill. And then hours later, the White House quietly issued what's known as a signing statement. That signing statement lists more than 50 things the president does not like about the bill. Other presidents have done the same. But as NPR's David Welna reports, Trump may be outdoing his predecessors.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: It's extremely unusual that Congress passes and gets signed into law the annual defense policy bill so early in the year, something which minority leader Chuck Schumer noted today on the Senate floor.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: I want to take a moment to thank a colleague who is not here today to celebrate that fact - Senator John S. McCain, for whom the bill has been named.

WELNA: On Monday, when President Trump signed that bill in front of troops at Fort Drum in upstate New York, he pointedly omitted from the bill's title the name of McCain, a frequent critic of Trump who has brain cancer.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The National Defense Authorization Act is the most significant investment in our military and our war fighters in modern history, and I am very proud to be a big, big part of it.

WELNA: But in the signing statement released that night, Trump repudiated many parts of that bill as encroachments on his presidential powers. John Bellinger was a legal adviser in the George W. Bush White House. He says Trump's objections are similar to those made by other presidents but with one major difference.

JOHN BELLINGER: Simply the sheer number of them in this signing statement. I do think this is probably the largest number of provisions that I have ever seen a president object to - more than 50 provisions that the president has singled out. Most presidents don't usually bother to complain about every minor constitutional slight.

WELNA: Bellinger says that may be due in part to the White House not exercising much oversight with the Justice Department lawyers who drafted the signing statement.

BELLINGER: But the long list may also reflect even more that Congress is doing more to direct and restrict President Trump's actions in the foreign policy and defense areas.

WELNA: Many of the measures Trump's at odds with involve Russia, including one that bars the U.S. from recognizing Moscow's claim of sovereignty over Crimea. Other objections have been made before. Trump repeated almost verbatim President Obama's disapproval of Congress blocking the transfer of prisoners out of the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union says the two men clearly had very different motives.

HINA SHAMSI: It doesn't appear that President Trump is making these assertions for some of the reasons that President Obama was. Even though President Obama was ineffectual in closing Guantanamo, President Obama recognized that it needed to be closed, whereas President Trump has the opposite view.

WELNA: The signing statement reads as if Trump intends to skirt the law, but former White House legal adviser Bellinger says that document does not empower the president to do so.

BELLINGER: It's really just a president's way of putting Congress on notice that he's got a concern about a particular provision so that if he actually does something later to not fully comply with a statutory provision, he can say later, look; I told you I had a problem with it.

WELNA: Trump of course could have vetoed the entire defense bill if he truly had so many problems with it, but doing so could pit him against fellow Republicans who passed those measures and who may well override a veto. In the year and a half he's been in office, Trump has yet to veto any bill Congress has sent him. David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

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