President Trump on Tuesday night abruptly threw the $900 billion Covid relief package approved by Congress into chaos, calling the bill that his administration helped craft a “disgrace” and demanding changes to the hard-fought deal, including an increase in direct payments from $600 to $2,000 per person.
In a video posted to Twitter, Trump complained that the stimulus checks included in the relief package were “ridiculously low” and criticized a litany of other provisions in the massive legislative package passed this week, seeming to confuse the Covid relief deal and the $1.4 trillion catchall spending bill it was paired with to ease passage.
“It’s called the Covid relief bill, but it has almost nothing to do with Covid,” Trump said in his video, complaining about various appropriations he termed wasteful. “Congress found plenty of money for foreign countries, lobbyists and special interests, while sending the bare minimum to the American people who need it,” he said.
A last-minute muddle: As The Washington Post noted: “Virtually all of the complaints Trump made in the four-minute video — including foreign aid agreements, aid to the Kennedy Center, fish management language and more — are not part of the $900 billion covid relief agreement but rather included in other, separately negotiated parts of the legislation, including a $1.4 trillion omnibus appropriations bill and a measure authorizing $9.9 billion in water projects.” And CNN reports that many of the items Trump objected to also appeared in his own budget proposal.
The president was largely absent from the congressional negotiations toward a coronavirus relief deal in recent weeks, focusing instead on baseless and unsuccessful claims that he lost the election because of widespread fraud. Trump had reportedly complained to aides last week that the $600 checks should be bigger, but was convinced — temporarily, it now seems — to not push the issue for fear of derailing the ongoing talks.
Trump’s comments reportedly blindsided some White House and congressional aides and left others in the administration embarrassed.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had represented the administration in talks — and, as The Washington Post points out, the $600 checks were his idea. “In a meeting with congressional leaders on Dec. 15, Mrs. Pelosi repeatedly asked Mr. Mnuchin what Mr. Trump’s position was on the direct payments, but he declined to answer,” The Wall Street Journal reported, citing a person familiar with the meeting.
In a statement released earlier on Tuesday, Mnuchin said he was pleased that the Covid relief package had passed “an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis” and thanked Trump and congressional leaders for their work “to provide critical additional economic relief for American workers, families, and businesses.” He added: “We are fully committed to ensuring that hardworking Americans get this vital support as quickly as possible and to further strengthening our economic recovery.”
Making them squirm: As Washington scrambled to make sense of Trump’s surprise announcement, some suggested that he was responding to conservative backlash against the bill. “Current and former administration officials speculated on Tuesday evening that Mr. Trump did not like the narrative that he had been sidelined from the negotiations and that calling for higher direct payments was a political move to please his base,” The New York Times reported.
One unnamed aide told The Wall Street Journal that Trump’s move was an effort to make Congress squirm. If so, Republicans are likely to be the ones feeling most uncomfortable. “This is what happens with a president who places more trust in conservative fever swamp Twitter than his own Treasury Secretary. His administration helped negotiate this bill, and he just pulled down the pants of every Republican who voted for it,” Brendan Buck, who served as a top aide to former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) told the Post.
Some “insiders” reportedly suggested that may have been Trump’s goal, with the president intentionally punishing members of his own party because he felt angry and betrayed that GOP leaders had accepted the outcome of the election.
Democrats, on the other hand, eagerly took Trump up on his demand, with party leaders and members voicing support for the larger checks, seizing the opportunity to ratchet up pressure on congressional Republicans, most of whom oppose the additional spending and sought to limit the size of the aid package to less than $1 trillion. Upping the payments to $2,000 per adult would add some $370 billion to the cost of the package, according to an estimate by economist Ernie Tedeschi, putting it well above the GOP’s ceiling.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) responded to the president’s Twitter post with one of her own: “Republicans repeatedly refused to say what amount the President wanted for direct checks. At last, the President has agreed to $2,000 — Democrats are ready to bring this to the Floor this week by unanimous consent. Let’s do it!”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) criticized Republicans for previously blocking larger stimulus checks and pressed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to go along this time, tweeting: “I’m in. Whaddya say, Mitch? Let’s not get bogged down with ideological offsets and unrelated items and just DO THIS! The American people deserve it.”
What’s next: No one knows at this point. “No one on either side of Pennsylvania Avenue appears to know what Trump’s plan is — or even if there is one,” Politico reported.
How Trump’s challenge plays out in the coming days will determine whether coronavirus relief is delayed and the government shuts down.
Pelosi is set to stage a vote of support for the $2,000 payments by unanimous consent Thursday, but any Democratic effort to amend the relief package or approve payments isn’t likely to succeed.
In a letter to colleagues on Wednesday, the speaker said that bringing up a standalone bill to increase the direct payments would require the agreement of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). “If the President truly wants to join us in $2,000 payments, he should call upon Leader McCarthy to agree to our Unanimous Consent request,” she wrote. Any House member could also block the bill from advancing by denying unanimous consent. It’s not clear that the Senate would take up the measure either, and Senate Republicans are unlikely to approve the larger payments.
It’s worth noting, though, that Trump did not explicitly threaten to veto the Covid relief and spending package.
“I am also asking Congress to immediately get rid of the wasteful and unnecessary items from this legislation, and to send me a suitable bill, or else the next administration will have to deliver a Covid relief package, and maybe that administration will be me,” he said.
Having expressed his displeasure with the stimulus checks and made his point to his base and voters who he might court in another presidential campaign, Trump could still relent and sign the package. “Two people close to the president said the president is unlikely to actually veto the bill and cause a government shutdown because he doesn’t want to delay funding for distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine, which he considers one of his biggest achievements,” Politico reported.
If Trump does veto the bill, or refuses to sign it, the government could shut down on December 29, when a stopgap funding measure expires, and emergency benefits provided by an earlier relief package, including an eviction moratorium and extended unemployment insurance, would expire by the end of the month.
Congress could still avert a shutdown by approving another stopgap funding bill, but averting additional economic pain would be harder.
The latest relief bill passed with a veto-proof majority in both houses of Congress, but with the 116th Congress ending in just days, there’s a chance that Trump could prevent it from being enacted via a “pocket veto” — not signing it before the 117th Congress begins on January 3.
The new Congress would then have to pass the package again. In the meantime, millions of jobless workers would see a lapse in benefits, and the expiration of emergency unemployment programs could push nearly 5 million people into poverty virtually overnight, according to an estimate from researchers at Columbia University cited by The New York Times.
Trump on Wednesday left Washington, D.C., for his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where he reportedly plans to stay through the new year.
This story was updated at 6:45 p.m. on December 23.