WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump said in a statement he reserves the right to ignore the defense authorization law’s ban on U.S. recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea, among 50 other provisions he says tread on his authority as president.
Trump issued a 15-page signing statement Monday to accompany the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that voiced his constitutional concerns with an array of language, including limits on U.S. support to the Saudi campaign in Yemen, limits on transfers of Guantanamo Bay detainees, limits on withdrawing U.S. forces from South Korea and enhanced reporting of civilian casualties.
Trump was also concerned with provisions limiting his ability to retire Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft and to retire intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Trump objected to four of eight provisions focused on Russia. For example, the law would limit the use of federal funds to recognize Russian control over Crimea, but Trump asserted his authority as commander in chief, saying the law would unduly “dictate the position of the United States in external military and foreign affairs.”
Crimea was seized from Ukraine by Russia and annexed in March 2014.
Trump invoked executive privilege against a requirement he report to Congress on whether he has raised the topic of the New START Treaty with Moscow. (Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he told Trump that Russia is prepared to extend the treaty, which calls for deployable nuclear warheads and bombs to be capped at 1,550, beyond its 2021 expiration date.)
Trump voiced concerns Congress was handcuffing his military and diplomatic powers over a ban on military-to-military cooperation between the U.S. and Russia, limits on his implementation of the Open Skies Treaty — which allows reciprocal reconnaissance flights — and a mandate he report whether Russia is breaching the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
In a ceremony at Fort Drum, New York, on Monday, Trump signed the sweeping $716 billion authorization measure, calling it “the most significant investment in our military and our war fighters in modern history.” But hours later, the White House released the signing statement criticizing portions of it.
The statement itself is not unusual. President Barack Obama and other presidents have asserted they can interpret and ignore portions of law because the provisions exceed Congress’ constitutional authority. Obama also objected to the 2017 NDAA’s far-reaching reorganization of the Pentagon, as well as its restrictions on transferring Guantanamo Bay detainees, among other provisions.
Trump objected to a mandate he designate a National Security Council official responsible for the U.S. government’s response to malign foreign influence operations and campaigns. (Trump has sent mixed messages about Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election, even as the heads of U.S. national security agencies have said Russia acted to influence and disrupt that election and is working to do the same with 2018 midterms.)
For the Pacific, Trump objected to a prohibition on China participating in Rim of the Pacific naval exercises, language to strengthen Taiwan’s force readiness and a mandate he report on China’s coercive activities in the South China Sea. He was also concerned with a limit on his ability to draw down U.S. troops from South Korea and a requirement he report on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.
On Yemen, Trump is bucking a mandate he review whether American or coalition partners violated U.S. law or Pentagon policies while aiding the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen’s civil war. Critics have accused the U.S. of failing to prevent civilian casualties, as it provides military support to the Saudi-led coalition.
Trump balked at a restriction on his ability to transfer Guantanamo Bay detainees, arguing it could violate his authority as commander in chief. But he said: “I fully intend to keep open that detention facility and to use it, as necessary or appropriate, for detention operations.”
Transparency-related provisions drew Trump’s fire, like one requirement the president make public the numbers of deployed U.S. troops and another to broaden the definition of “sensitive military operations” that the Defense Department is obligated to report to Congress to include military actions undertaken in defense of foreign partner forces.
Also concerning to the president was a limit on assistance in Iraq and Syria to counter the Islamic State group until the administration sets forth its strategy and details the size of the U.S. military presence there.
Likewise, Trump objected to a mandate that a senior Defense Department civilian be designated to develop policies for civilian casualty reporting. He shares the objective of a requirement for more detailed civilian casualty reports, but said the Pentagon will submit only “information that is reasonably available” to it and won’t be changing battle-related damage investigations.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.