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Trump criticizes some Russia provisions of defense bill, suggests in signing statement he may ignore them


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President Trump signed a $716 billion defense policy bill named for Sen. John McCain after delivering remarks that failed to mention the senator. The measure boosts military pay by the largest amount in nine years and replaces aging equipment. (Aug. 13)

WASHINGTON – At a bill signing ceremony in New York Monday, President Donald Trump took credit for a $716 billion defense policy bill that he said would strengthen America’s military. “I am very proud to be a big, big part of it,” he said. “It was not very hard.”

But in a written statement hours later, Trump raised objections to 52 separate provisions of the law – including four of the eight provisions dealing specifically with Russia. The signing statement suggests he may fail to enforce provisions that he says raise constitutional concerns.

As passed by Congress, the defense bill attempts to tie the president’s hands on Russia in a number of ways. It forbids him from using federal funds to recognize Russian control over Crimea and bans military cooperation with Russia until Russia pulls out of Ukraine.

And it requires him to report back to Congress on steps he has taken to address Russian violations of the Open Skies Treaty, which allows reconnaissance flights over Russian territory, and the New START Treaty on nuclear weapons.  

Trump said those provisions undermine the presidents’s rile “as the sole representative of the nation in foreign affairs.”

Trump also objected to a section requiring him to send to Congress a strategy to combat “malign foreign influence operations and campaigns.” That strategy, he said, is covered by executive privilege. 

While presidential objections in signing statements are not uncommon, Trump’s pushback on Russia-related provisions is particularly notable given his attempts to forge closer relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin – even as U.S. intelligence officials say Putin interfered in the 2016 presidential election by ordering a campaign of cyber-theft and propaganda. 

Presidents have used signing statements since the 19th century to express reservations about bills they’ve signed. But the tool can be controversial because they allow presidents to re-interpret legislation, or even serve as a line-item veto to not enforce provisions they find objectionable.

With some high-profile exceptions – a signing statement on a congressional resolution on white nationalists in Charlottesville, for example – Trump’s signing statements aren’t much different from other presidents.

“The average signing statement for Trump looks like what you saw with the average Obama and the average Bush,” said Joel Sievert of Texas Tech University, who has studied presidential signing statements. 

That’s especially true, he said, for the annual defense policy bill, which has raised separation-of-powers concerns by presidents dating back to at least Ronald Reagan. 

One difference: Even in his signing statement, Trump did not mention the name of the bill: The John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019. Trump has had a long-running feud with the Arizona Republican, who is battling brain cancer.

More: Trump snubs John McCain in signing defense policy bill that bears senator’s name

“The fact that there’s zero mention of Senator McCain really stands out,” Sievert said. said. “Previous presidents would at least give some mention to the individual for whom a bill was named.”

In other provisions: 

► Trump took issue with a congressional mandate not to reduce U.S. troop levels in South Korea below 22,000 unless the Secretary of Defense certifies that it won’t undermine the security of allies in the region. 

► Trump dropped an objection to the creation of a United States Space Command after Congress dropped language giving an Air Force general “sole authority” over space forces. In a signing statement last year, Trump said that military officers are “subordinate to the civilian leadership of the president as commander-in-chief.”

Congress rewrote that provision, and Trump is now touting the Space Command as a step toward his proposal for the creation of a new Space Force as a sixth branch of the military. 

► Trump continued to take the same legal position as President Barack Obama on the closure of the terrorist detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“I fully intend to keep open that detention facility and to use it, as necessary or appropriate, for detention operations,” he said. But he also repeated an objection that restricting transfers could “violate constitutional separation-of-powers” principles.”


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