Sen. Jim Inhofe is among Donald Trump’s most loyal supporters. But with Inhofe and legions of other Republicans preparing to defy the president on a major defense bill, Trump decided to make one last push.
In a 30-minute phone call Monday night, Trump told Inhofe (R-Okla.) that he still planned to veto the National Defense Authorization Act because it doesn’t bend to his whims — targeting social media companies and maintaining bases named for Confederate soldiers. The Senate Armed Services chair said he explained to Trump the importance of the bill. It delivers pay raises to U.S. troops and is intended to strengthen the national defense.
Perhaps most important, Inhofe is forging ahead without the president: “We have a difference on this,” he said Tuesday.
Trump’s grip over his party has never been seriously challenged in the Congress, despite four years of hand-wringing over his erratic foreign policy, hard-line tariff regime and scattershot approach to legislation. Trump hasn’t had a single veto overridden, with Republicans loath to directly confront such a wildly popular figure among the GOP base, though they have tanked some of his nominees and tried to influence him behind the scenes.
But now at the ebb of his power and in the waning days of his presidency, Trump has met his match in defense hawks and the annual defense bill. It has passed 59 years in a row, and even loyal Trump supporters are looking past his Twitter attacks and plotting a rebellion against a president who often seeks vengeance against those who break with him. And they’re acting like it’s no big deal.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) argued that Congress needs to save Trump from himself.
“I just don’t want him to be the president who, after 59 [NDAAs], vetoes one,” Cramer said in an interview. “And given his legacy of supporting the military and rebuilding the military and what he’s done to position ourselves, I would just hate for that to end after 59 in a row.”
Republicans’ nonchalance about crossing the president is striking given their mostly unfettered loyalty to him over the past four years. When asked whether he has any reservations about bucking the president, Cramer said: “No. None. Politics isn’t part of the calculation.”
“It’s not about going against the president,” added Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a potential presidential contender. “What he wants is very legitimate. But at the end of the day, when you balance the equities … there are more pluses than minuses.”
Still, 40 House Republicans voted with Trump on Tuesday and a number of GOP senators like Rand Paul of Kentucky, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Mike Braun of Indiana will, too, when the final conference report comes to the Senate. Those who support the bill realize that even as Joe Biden prepares to take office, they are still taking a risk going against Trump. He’s already started urging primary challenges to GOP officials he finds wanting.
“It’s no fun in today’s Republican Party to override the president. I mean, he has a following that is intensely loyal. Some of our Republican constituents are inclined, always, to take the president’s side,” said one Senate Republican granted anonymity to discuss political sensitivities.
Trump has been aggressively working to derail the legislation. It’s arguably been his biggest recent priority apart from his attempt to overturn the election he lost, which has elicited muted criticism from Republicans.
Trump tweeted that he wants the GOP to “vote against the very weak National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which I will VETO.” And while Republican leaders have been hopeful he wouldn’t follow through with the veto threat, the White House made official on Tuesday that it “strongly opposes” the legislation and that Trump’s advisers would recommend he veto it if it is sent to his desk.
Some of Trump’s fiercest allies on Capitol Hill, on the other hand, were eager to use the NDAA fight to show their loyalty to the president.
The conservative House Freedom Caucus had initially organized a press conference for Tuesday afternoon to lay out its agenda for the new Congress. But at the last minute, the group changed the topic of the presser to focus on supporting Trump’s veto threat and calling out GOP colleagues who vowed to override him.
“We support our president. We’re standing with him,” said Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.). “If he vetoes this bill, we will support his motion and his right to do so.”
But to hear senators talk about the bill, there’s little conflict at hand with the president. They simply frame it as a tactical disagreement. And they say Trump knows he might get rolled. The House vote Tuesday night suggests the president’s veto would be overridden.
“The president’s been made aware of the fact that the 230 and the base naming is not enough to tip the balance to not allow it to go forward for our military,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who just won a new six-year term. She shrugged off the possibility of retribution: “I’m pro-military and I’m from a pro-military state, so I’m not really worried about that.”
The $740 billion defense bill includes dozens of bipartisan priorities, including many that Trump himself has touted. It’s one of the few must-pass bills in Congress every year, prompting Democratic and Republican leaders in both chambers to affirm their intent to override a presidential veto.
Many in the GOP say they want to address Section 230, which provides legal protections for social media companies from content posted on their platforms. But they say the NDAA’s national-security importance transcends all else — including opposition from their party’s leader.
In the end, for Republicans, it’s a choice between having a defense bill and not having one; and they say the latter would be disastrous.
“It’s a very significant national security document that’s done every single year,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said, rattling off what he sees as big wins in the bill not just for the country but for his state in particular. “It is very consequential.”
He added: “[Trump’s] not wrong. Something needs to be done on Section 230. That’s the challenge here.”
But Trump may be right that trying to force Congress to act is the only way to spur legal changes to tech companies. There is no consensus in Congress on a standalone bill; if there was, it probably would have passed already.
So some Republicans are still listening to his arguments, even as enough in the GOP appear willing to buck the president and potentially force the first — and last — veto override of his presidency.
“The president has a point,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who is undecided. “Mark my words: We’ll still be holding hearings on 230 two years from now.”
Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.