Democratic leaders have made a terrible trade. In return for clean headlines on impeachment, congressional Democrats gave Donald Trump his full wish list for war.
Because Democrats did not want a debate over military policy to distract from impeachment headlines, they dropped many important objections to Trump’s military agenda. While House Democrats declared Trump “a threat to national security” in articles of impeachment, they gave Trump most of what he wanted on the big questions of war.
Just two days after House Democrats passed articles of impeachment, Trump signed into law a major piece of military legislation, the $738 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The final version of this annual military policy bill abandoned many of the reforms passed by House Democrats in their House version of the bill.
Here are some of the key military reforms that House Democrats had passed, only to drop in final negotiations with the Senate and White House:
- Dropped: Stopping Trump from deploying “low yield” nuclear weapons that would make it easier to start a nuclear war.
- Dropped: Stopping Trump from taking military action against Iran without congressional authorization, under most circumstances.
- Dropped: Blocking U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which could have helped end the Saudi-led coalition’s slaughter in Yemen.
- Dropped: Penalties for Saudis involved with the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
- Dropped: Ending the original 2002 Iraq War authorization to use military force.
These limits on Trump’s capacity to launch new wars were fundamentally aligned with the philosophy underlying the articles of impeachment: Trump is a threat to national security who cannot be trusted with presidential power and must be removed from office.
Unfortunately, each of these reforms were removed from the final military policy bill, with the acquiescence of Democratic negotiators.
Afterwards, Democratic negotiators heaped praise upon what was ultimately a significant negotiating failure:
- U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) of the Senate Armed Services Committee called the final NDAA “a responsible compromise that strengthens our national defense capabilities.”
- Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, stated that the final military policy bill “contains major wins for Democrats and working people and promotes our national security.”
The Republican negotiators included Jared Kushner, Senate Armed Services Committee Chair James Inhofe (R-OK), and House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX). They too had nice things to say about the final legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was blunter in his endorsement, as reported in the Congress-focused newspaper Roll Call:
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stopped just short of gloating on the Senate floor Monday. He said the final NDAA “is not either side’s ideal bill.” But he noted that House Democrats’ “partisan demands” were now gone, and he said “sanity and progress” had begun to prevail on NDAA and other issues.
Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi heaped praise upon the final Trump-friendly defense bill, describing it as an “important step forward for the national security and economic security of the American people.” Just eight days later, Pelosi would deliver a speech calling for impeachment and declaring Trump “an ongoing threat to our national security.”
In defending their decision to pass the final version of the military policy bill, Democrats touted several major social welfare benefits that were tucked into the legislation. Soldiers would receive a 3.1% raise, and civil servants would gain 12 weeks of paid parental leave. But if Trump is so untrustworthy that he must be removed from office, why did Democrats like Reed, Smith, and Pelosi completely fold on core issues of war and national security?
Pelosi’s endorsement of the defense bill paved the way for a landslide vote for passage in both houses of Congress. Progressive Democrats like Rep. Ro Khanna and Sen. Bernie Sanders sounded the alarm, but many Democrats ultimately backed the final bill.
The common thinking in Washington is that Democratic negotiators didn’t fight Trump’s war agenda because they didn’t want to give Republicans an opportunity to compete with impeachment headlines. As the thinking goes, Democrats wanted to be seen as capable of governing, so they avoided any delays to passage of the very military policy bill that granted Trump the power to wage unnecessary and reckless wars.
But if Democrats truly believe that Trump is a threat to national security who should be removed from office, it makes no sense to preserve his capacity to launch a war with Iran, allow him to continue backing the brutal Saudi dictatorship, and give him the ability to develop and deploy dangerous “low-yield” nuclear weapons.
This was a false choice, and it didn’t have to be this way.
Just days before congressional negotiators announced their final defense bill compromise, a Saudi air force officer had shot and killed 3 U.S. Navy sailors at a U.S. Navy base in Pensacola, Florida. In the aftermath, it would have been entirely legitimate for Democratic negotiators to demand a second look at the U.S.-Saudi alliance and put the brakes on their flailing defense bill negotiations. Following the shooting, Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis and Republican senator Rick Scott had already begun asking tough questions about the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Instead of folding their cards, Democrats Smith and Reed could have negotiated from a position of strength, forcing a showdown over Trump’s unpopular alliance with the Saudi monarchy. With support from Speaker Pelosi, they could have also pushed for inclusion of key reforms from the House version of the bill. Of course, Trump would have labelled Democrats as anti-military. But the Trump-Kushner-Saudi alliance is this president’s unexploited Achilles heel.
Unfortunately, none of this came to pass. Instead, Congress approved a final defense bill that gives the Pentagon nearly as much money as it had at the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Don’t expect Democratic or Republican negotiators to ask how we will pay for it. Rep. Adam Smith has already declared the final NDAA to be “the most progressive defense bill we have passed in decades.” And just one week after agreeing to Trump’s military priorities, Smith announced that he would vote to impeach him.