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Michigan lawmakers criticize Trump's threat to veto defense bill

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Several Michigan lawmakers pushed back Wednesday against President Donald Trump's threat to veto a major defense spending bill if Congress does not eliminate certain liability protections for internet companies. 

"This is not the time or place," said Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell of Dryden, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee.

Trump wants lawmakers to end a provision in federal law that provides a legal shield for  technology companies so they can't be sued over content posted by users, or over the decisions the companies make about content they remove or leave online.

President Donald Trump speaks with reporters on Thanksgiving, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020, at the White House in Washington.

Trump, who has accused social media companies of bias against conservatives, tweeted late Tuesday that Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act is "very dangerous" and unfair and poses "a serious threat to our National Security & Election Integrity."

Sen. Gary Peters, a Bloomfield Township Democrat who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, noted that for 59 years there's been strong bipartisan support for passing the National Defense Authorization Act, which provides a pay raise for troops, sets national defense policy, and supports manufacturers and jobs in Michigan and across the country.

"President Trump should not threaten to veto legislation that’s critical to our national security and our troops over an unrelated issue," Peters said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, a Libertarian representing the Grand Rapids area, flagged Trump's tweet as "false" and said Section 230 promotes freedom of speech. 

"Section 230 applies to everyone on the internet, including traditional media, The Trump Organization, him, you and me," wrote Amash, a frequent Trump critic who last year left the Republican Party. 

"In fact, it became law before most social media existed. It promotes the freedom of speech by ensuring you’re not liable for things *other* people say."

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Holly Democrat on the Armed Services panel, said Trump was letting a "personal issue stand in the way of funding for our military and a pay raise for our service members."

"It’s wrong, and the President should take a page from our men and women in uniform, and put the country before himself," Slotkin said on Twitter. 

Mitchell, who is retiring from Congress at the end of his term, said he was "disgusted" with Trump's threats to veto the NDAA, saying the president is attempting to hold hostage a bill that has been passed on a bipartisan basis for 59 years.

He noted Section 230 has nothing to do the National Defense Authorization Act. 

"It’s not that I don’t think we need to look at Section 230. Frankly, it may be too broad a protection," Mitchell said. 

"You don't want to destroy social media because you're frustrated with it. The idea that you're going to write revisions on the back of a napkin and either get rid of it or revise it somewhere on the fly is, first, incredibly poor public policy and also shouldn't be in this bill." 

He predicted that if Trump moves ahead with the veto, House Republicans and Democrats would have the two-thirds votes needed to override it.

Trump in a pair of Tuesday tweets called Section 230 a "liability shielding gift from the U.S. to 'Big Tech'" and that if it's "not completely terminated as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), I will be forced to unequivocally VETO the Bill when sent to the very beautiful Resolute desk."

White House Press Secretary Kaleigh McEnany suggested Wednesday that social media companies like Twitter are effectively functioning as publishers and should not be immune from legal liability for what language they choose to fact check or take down or not.

Since the Nov. 3 election, Twitter has been labeling Trump's tweets about unproven election fraud as "disputed."

"The president is serious about (a veto)," McEnany said at a press briefing. "Other world leaders are making calls for genocide, and Twitter's not finding that worthy of flagging or blocking." 

She was referring to tweets by the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran tweeting doubts about the Holocaust and calling Israel a "deadly, cancerous growth."

Sen. Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters Wednesday on Capitol Hill that the NDAA legislation does not include a repeal of Section 230, even though he agrees with Trump that the provision is problematic. 

"I feel just as passionate about that as he does. The only difference of opinion that we have is, I don't want it on this bill, because we can't have a bill if that language is on it, because the Democrats will not appoint conferees," Inhofe said. 

He predicted the bill would pass with a veto-proof majority in the Senate. Inhofe also confirmed that the final version of the legislation would include language to rename military bases named for Confederate figures. Trump has previously threatened to veto the defense legislation over that provision as well.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, who supports Section 230 reform, said it was "absolutely appropriate" for the president to try to get it into the defense bill, which is must-pass legislation. 

"He's got to make his own decision" about a veto," Hawley told reporters, "but I think that him saying that 230 ought to be in there is absolutely reasonable, and I support that 100%."

But the top Democratic and Republican leaders on the House Armed Services Committee, Democrat Adam Smith of Washington and Republican Mac Thornberry of Texas, in a statement suggested they also found the veto threat out of bounds. 

"For 59 straight years, the NDAA has passed because members of Congress and presidents of both parties have set aside their own policy objectives and partisan preferences and put the needs of our military personnel and America’s security first," the lawmakers said. "The time has come to do that again.”

mburke@detroitnews.com