The Greatest Number of Constitutional Objections in a Signing Statement?

President Trump's August 2018 Defense Authorization Signing Statement

John T. Woolley

Many commentators took special note of President Trump's Signing Statement of August 13, 2018 accompanying the Defense appropriations authorization Act (see USA Today, the New York Times, and NPR).  This combative statement is a very interesting example of a "constitutional signing statement."   The Bill easily passed in both houes-- by a vote of 359-54 in the House, and by a vote of 87-10 in the Senate.)

Of rhetorical or symbolic interest is the title.  The general citation for the Act (HR 5515) is the "John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019."  The President declined to refer to Senator McCain either in his signing statement or in his official remarks at Fort Drum (Jefferson, NY).  This omission was widely seen as an expression of President Trump's hostility to Senator McCain.

Of more substantive interest is the number of provisions to which the President objected, and the particular congressional actions to which he objected.

One instance of substantial substantive importance was Subtitle D, Section 1241, prohibiting availability of funds relating to sovereignty of the Russian Federation over Crimea.  The provision reads:

None of the funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or otherwise made available for fiscal year 2019 for the Department of Defense may be obligated or expended to implement any activity that recognizes the sovereignty of the Russian Federation over Crimea.

This might strike observers as a perfect example of how Congress can use it's Constitutional powers in appropriations to influence the behavior of the Executive Branch.  But, of course Article II Section 3 of the Constitution gives the President exclusive authority to "receive Ambassadors"—and by implication to determine what nations are recognized as sovereign.  

President Trump's statement responded to language of 1241 as follows:

My Administration will treat these provisions consistent with the President's exclusive constitutional authorities as Commander in Chief and as the sole representative of the Nation in foreign affairs, including the authorities to determine the terms upon which recognition is given to foreign sovereigns, to receive foreign representatives, and to conduct the Nation's diplomacy.

The President might have gone on to say that while he was defending the constitutional authority of the Presidency, as a matter of policy he agreed with Congress that Russian annexation of Crimea was unacceptable.  Prior presidents have sometimes made similar statements.  President Trump did not take the opportunity to do so in this case.

Several observers noted the number of sections in the law to which the President objected.  At least one expressed the view that the 52 separate objections was record-setting.  At the APP, we have not tried to keep tabs on this kind of statistic, and don't know of a good source that does.  There are clearly some other cases from President George W. Bush that are close—at objections to 46 or 48 sections.  

The way presidents get to large numbers of objections is by calling out every item—however innocuous—where Constitutional authorities might overlap.  In the current bill, the objection Trump raised to the Crimea sovereignty covered these additional, mostly obscure provisions:

Sec. 1207. Participation in and support of the Inter-American Defense College.
Sec. 1257. Strengthening Taiwan’s force readiness [asking the Secretary of Defense to coordinate with counterparts in Taiwan to assess their military forces]
Sec. 1289. Coordination of efforts to negotiate free trade agreements with certain sub-Saharan African countries.

So counting provisions is not so interesting without some clearer understanding of the Constitutional conflicts and current policy stakes.  (See also the APP page on Signing Statements.)

Visit our Presidential Signing Statements page.