Maybe it’s a negotiating strategy, maybe it’s the meds, maybe it’s just chaos. Whatever the reason, President Trump on Tuesday night called on Congress to pass a number of narrower coronavirus relief bills — just hours after he abruptly pulled the plug on talks for a more comprehensive package.
Trump’s confusing tweets: As part of another epic tweetstorm, Trump said that the House and Senate should “IMMEDIATELY” approve bills to provide $25 billion in payroll support for airline workers, $135 billion in aid to small businesses and another round of $1,200 direct payments to American households. He followed up Wednesday morning by retweeting his own message on stimulus checks from Tuesday night, urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to “Move Fast, I Am Waiting To Sign!” But those exhortations all came after Tuesday afternoon tweets in which Trump said he had directed his team to stop negotiating until after the election.
So are stimulus talks off or on? Trump’s backtracking sowed some confusion about the state of the talks and whether the president was reversing himself, perhaps after being spooked by the stock market’s reaction to his initial announcement or by the prospect of taking the blame for the lack of another stimulus package.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) backed Trump’s decision to halt talks on a larger deal, but some other Republicans disagreed with the move. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, facing a tough reelection race, said waiting until after the election was a “huge mistake.”
Tony Fratto, a former aide to President George W. Bush, who is now a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies in Washington, told The New York Times that Trump had given Democrats a gift: “Republicans can try to explain that the blame is on Democrats. Democrats only have to hold up Trump’s tweet, taking the blame himself.”
What the White House is thinking: Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, said Wednesday morning that he and the president had spoken to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin about pursuing smaller, separate bills. “The secretary and I have been talking about what we could do with stand-alone bills to help airlines, small businesses and the American people with stimulus checks, so hopefully we can convince Speaker Pelosi to do something on a stand-alone basis,” Meadows told “Fox & Friends.”
Asked about warnings from the Federal Reserve and elsewhere that the economy needs another shot of stimulus — and about how it would be to the president’s political advantage to have another relief package passed — Meadows said the talks with Pelosi weren’t leading anywhere. He pointed to the wide gap that remained on aid to state and local governments, which Democrats say is needed to protect jobs but Trump has derided as bailouts for blue states.
“We’re still willing to be engaged, but I’m not optimistic for a comprehensive deal,” Meadows said. “I am optimistic that there’s about 10 things that we could do on a piecemeal basis if the speaker is willing to put it before her members.”
Pelosi had questioned whether the steroids Trump is taking to treat his Covid-19 infection were affecting his decision-making (some White House staffers reportedly wondered the same thing). But she suggested Wednesday that his backtracking was all about shifting blame.
“Well, it's hard to see any clear, sane path in anything that he's doing. But the fact is that he saw the political downside of his statement of walking away from the negotiations,” she said in an interview on ABC’s “The View.” “He’s rebounding from a terrible mistake he made yesterday, and the Republicans in Congress are going down the drain with him on that.”
Pelosi did speak with Mnuchin on Wednesday morning, and the Treasury secretary reportedly asked about a relief bill for airlines. The conversation did not go well. Pelosi, according to a spokesperson, reminded Mnuchin that Republicans had blocked just such a bill on Friday and asked him to review that legislation “so that they could have an informed conversation.”
What it all means: In some ways, we’re now back to where we were a few months ago, when the White House was pushing a piecemeal deal and Pelosi was insisting that the pandemic and its economic wreckage required a more comprehensive package. Only now there’s less time to get something done, and the GOP has other items on its agenda. “We’ve only got four weeks to the election, and we have a justice of the Supreme Court to get passed. It’s too close to the election — not enough time to get stuff done at this stage in the game,” top White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told CNBC. “What the president was saying is, ‘We’re too far apart for a gigantic bill.’”
A bill to help airlines and thousands of industry workers facing furloughs may still be possible, but a larger package appears dead for now, unless Trump has another sudden change of heart and decides to squeeze rank-and-file Republicans who remain opposed to additional spending. “It became very obvious over the last couple days that a comprehensive bill was just going to get to the point where it really did not have much Republican support at all,” Meadows told reporters. “It was more of a Democrat-led bill, which would have been problematic more so in the Senate than in the House.”