By JILL COLVIN
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (AP) — President Donald Trump on Monday signed a $716 billion defense policy bill named for John McCain but included no mention in his remarks of the Republican senator, who is battling brain cancer at home in Arizona. Trump and McCain are engaged in a long-running feud that dates to Trump’s 2016 presidential run. At campaign rallies, Trump regularly castigates McCain — without using his name — for casting a dramatic thumbs-down vote that doomed Trump’s effort last year to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which was enacted by President Barack Obama.
Trump said there was “no better place than right here at Fort Drum” to celebrate passage of the defense bill, which will boost military pay by 2.6 percent, giving service members their largest increase in nine years. The bill — formally the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act but referred to by Trump as simply the National Defense Authorization Act — will introduce thousands of new recruits to active duty, reserve and National Guard units and replace aging tanks, planes, ships and helicopters with more advanced and lethal technology, Trump said.
“Hopefully, we’ll be so strong we’ll never have to use it. But if we ever did, nobody has a chance,” he said. The bill also authorizes billions of dollars for military construction, including family housing. Besides setting policy and spending levels, the bill weakens a bid to clamp down on Chinese telecom company ZTE. It allows Trump to waive sanctions against countries that bought Russian weapons and now want to buy U.S. military equipment. The bill provides no money for Trump’s requested Space Force but authorizes the military parade he wants in Washington in November.
The compromise bill removes a provision reinstating penalties against ZTE and restricting the company’s ability to buy U.S. component parts. ZTE was almost forced out of business after being accused of selling sensitive information to nations hostile to the U.S., namely Iran and North Korea, in violation of trade laws. The measure also includes provisions designed to improve how the Defense Department handles reports of child-on-child sexual assaults among the tens of thousands of children and teens who live and go to school on the military bases where their parents serve. An Associated Press investigation this spring documented broad failures of justice when military kids report incidents.
Among the changes, the bill creates new legal protections for students at Department of Defense Education Activity schools and requires the school system and the Pentagon to develop new policies for responding to reports on bases more generally. Schools and the armed services also must start tracking incidents — AP identified nearly 700 over 10 years, but that was a certain undercount. The annual measure sets policies and a budget outline for the Pentagon and will be followed by a later appropriations bill.
Trump and McCain have had a strained relationship for years. During his election campaign, Trump declared that McCain, who was a prisoner of war for more than five years in Vietnam, was not a war hero, and he has publicly and privately blamed McCain for submarining the Republican health care bill last year. In May, a West Wing aide dismissed McCain’s negative opinion on Trump’s CIA nominee during a closed-door meeting by saying of the senator that “he’s dying anyway.” Trump, who has long prided himself on never apologizing, believing it shows weakness, did not apologize, but the aide was later fired.
In a statement Monday, McCain expressed pride in the bill. “I’m proud the NDAA is now law & humbled Congress chose to designate it in my name. As Chairman of the Armed Services Cmte, I’ve found high purpose in service of a cause greater than self_the cause of our troops who defend America & all that she stands for,” he tweeted. His wife, Cindy McCain, meanwhile, retweeted a post from CBS News that noted Trump had neglected to mention McCain at the signing.