Monday, December 28, 2020

Why the president vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act

Heather Cox Richardson pens the December 27, 2020 Letter from an American. Here is one item of interest given the president’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act.

Tonight, Trump relented and signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which includes the coronavirus relief measure and the 2021 appropriations bill (along with other measures).

He accompanied it with a statement claiming he would demand changes to the law, but these have no force; Congress will almost certainly ignore him. …

So the CAA will become law, and the drama of lawmaking for this congressional session should be over. But it is not quite over yet. Trump vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act, which specifies how the defense budget will be spent, on Wednesday, December 23. The NDAA has passed with bipartisan majorities since the 1960s when it first began, and presidents have always signed it. But Trump has chosen to veto it, on the grounds that it calls for the renaming of U.S. military bases named for Confederate generals and that it does not strip social media companies of protection from liability when third parties post offensive material on them.

The National Defense Authorization Act this year does something else, though, that seems to me of far more importance to the president than the naming of military bases.

It includes a measure known as the Corporate Transparency Act, which undercuts shell companies and money laundering in America. The act requires the owners of any company that is not otherwise overseen by the federal government (by filing taxes, for example, or through close regulation) to file a report that identifies each person associated with the company who either owns 25% or more of it or exercises substantial control over it. That report, including name, birthdate, address, and an identifying number, goes to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). The measure also increases penalties for money laundering and streamlines cooperation between banks and foreign law enforcement authorities.

America is currently the easiest place in the world for criminals to form an anonymous shell company which enables them to launder money, evade taxes, and engage in illegal payoff schemes. The measure will pull the rug out from both domestic and international criminals that take advantage of shell companies to hide from investigators. When the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists dug into leaked documents from FinCEN this fall, they discovered shell companies moving money for criminals operating out of Russia, China, Iran, and Syria.

Shell companies also mean that our political system is awash in secrecy. Social media giants like Facebook cannot determine who is buying political advertising. And, as Representative Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) noted, shell companies allow “foreign bad actors” to corrupt our system even more directly. “[I]t’s illegal for foreigners to contribute to our campaigns,” he reminded Congress in a speech for the bill, “but if you launder your money through a front company with anonymous ownership there is very little we can do to stop you.”

We know the Trump family uses shell companies: Trump’s fixer Michael Cohen used a shell company to pay off Stormy Daniels, and just this month we learned that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner approved a shell company that spent more than $600 million in campaign funds.

The new requirements in the NDAA apply not just to future entities, but also to existing ones.

Congress needs to repass the NDAA over Trump’s veto—indeed it is likely that the CTA was included in this measure precisely because the NDAA is must-pass legislation—and both the CTA and the NDAA bill into which is it tucked have bipartisan support. Trump has objected to a number of things in the original bill but has not publicly complained about the CTA in it. It will be interesting to see if Congress repasses this bill in its original form and, if not, what changes it makes.

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