In the next few days, President Donald Trump will have to make a decision about what to do with the National Defense Authorization Act. It’s a clunky name for a straightforward bill—it dictates how the military budget is spent—and it used to be what was known as “must-pass” legislation, because no Congress would dare fail to fund the troops, and no president would dare veto it.
But Trump has repeatedly promised to veto the bill, which was sent to him Friday by large majorities in the House and Senate, and Congress is now poised to override his veto for the first time in his presidency. That would provide a fitting bookend to the Trump years by reprising two of its central themes: pointless defenses of white supremacy, and nearly complete legislative failure.
There are other possible outcomes. Trump could veto the bill and have the veto sustained, though this seems less likely, or he could fold and sign the NDAA after all. Each of these results, though, would also underline his struggles to govern.
The president has offered several explanations for why he intends to veto the bill, despite his self-styling as a champion of the military. (As Jeffrey Goldberg has reported, his private attitudes about men and women in uniform are very different.) Most recently, he tweeted, “The biggest winner of our new defense bill is China! I will veto!” The White House could not explain what he meant, and members of Congress were puzzled by the claim. Earlier this month, Trump said he’d block the bill if Congress didn’t repeal the Section 230 protections against lawsuits for social-media companies, a frequent hobbyhorse but one that has nothing to do with the NDAA. His longest-standing and most cogent (though not persuasive) explanation is that he objects to a provision that would rename 10 Army bases that honor Confederate generals.
There’s no good reason for the bases to bear those names, especially today. They honor men who led a treasonous revolt against the federal government, and who fought against the very army that uses the bases, for the purpose of maintaining Black slavery. Beyond that, the generals they honor were losers. Perhaps the most famous of the bases is named for Braxton Bragg, one of the worst generals in American history. Several of these bases were established during World War I. As Michel Paradis wrote in The Atlantic this summer, those years were a high-water mark for Lost Cause mythology, and the government wanted to grease the skids to place big installations in the old Confederacy. (More were added during World War II.)
Neither of these rationales applies today. There’s a welcome movement toward removing honors for Confederates, and the South is now solidly supportive of the United States military. Trump hasn’t offered any coherent explanation for why he objects so strongly to renaming the installations. He has complained that, somehow, it would dishonor American troops who won wars while passing through the bases under their current names. Trump has, however, consistently protected racist iconography. He defended people who participated in a white-supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017; praised General Robert E. Lee; and declined to condemn the Proud Boys, a far-right group, during a 2020 presidential debate. Although it might be tempting to see this pattern of behavior as an electoral ploy, Trump has exploited racial divisions throughout his life.
Another consistent theme of Trump’s presidency (another lost cause, even) has been the futility of his legislative agenda. Trump’s four years in office have been consequential in many ways—foreign-policy changes, judicial appointments, the general erosion of the government—but they have produced little legislation. The president’s much-lauded plan to repeal and replace Obamacare came to naught. Even when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, they would not fund his border wall. None of the big bills he promised for his first 100 days were enacted at all. His two biggest achievements were a package of tax cuts, which fell well short of the tax-code overhaul he’d hoped for, and criminal-justice reform, an existing, bipartisan effort he later soured on.
Now, despite his months of veto threats, Congress has passed the NDAA and sent it to him to sign, and leaders say they’ll override him if it comes to that. As the record shows, this isn’t a lame-duck president seeing his power diminish. Trump’s inability to get Congress to do what he wants fits the pattern of his presidency.
The intransigence of congressional Republicans may seem paradoxical. The House passed the NDAA on a 335–78 vote in the same week that 126 Republican members of the House signed a brief in support of a preposterous and dangerous Supreme Court case that sought to have the vote in key swing states thrown out so as to reelect Trump. How is it that they could kowtow so shamefully there and thumb their nose at him over the NDAA?
But as I wrote about the Supreme Court case, GOP member support was more indicative of a fear of Republican voters, who are increasingly antidemocratic, than a fear of Trump, who at this point is mostly a threat to them because of his ability to direct those voters. This gives GOP members an incentive to jump onto largely symbolic efforts such as the election suit, even as they ignore the president’s other requests.
Members of Congress know that Trump has never had the ability or attention to get legislation done. They were happy to work with him when it suited them—any Republican is happy to cut taxes—but knew they had little to fear by ignoring him when it didn’t. They know that funding the military is popular, but they are unwilling to even play ball by including comparatively minor, symbolic concessions to Trump such as the Confederate-base provision or Section 230 repeal.
Perhaps the overwhelming majorities in favor of the bill will persuade Trump to forgo the veto rather than risk an embarrassing loss on the way out the door. If the past month has shown that Trump doesn’t tend to cut his losses, it’s also true that he almost always folds when confronted. Whether the president backs down or Congress backs him down, though, the episode can’t help but raise an interesting question: What would the past four years have looked like if Republican members had been willing to stand up to Trump’s worst impulses more often?