BEDMINSTER, NJ — Seizing the power of his podium and his pen, President Donald Trump on Saturday bypassed the nation’s lawmakers as he claimed the authority to defer payroll taxes and replace an expired unemployment benefit with a lower amount after negotiations with Congress on a new Coronavirus rescue package collapsed.
At his private country club in Bedminster, New Jersey, Trump signed executive orders to act where Congress hasn’t. Not only has the pandemic undermined the economy and upended American lives, it has imperiled the president’s November reelection.
Perhaps most crucially, Trump moved to continue paying a supplemental federal unemployment benefit for millions of Americans out of work during the outbreak. However, his order called for up to $400 payments, one-third less than the $600 people had been receiving. Congress allowed those higher payments to lapse on Aug. 1, and negotiations to extend them have been mired in partisan gridlock, with the White House and Democrats miles apart.
Trump largely stayed on the sidelines during the administration’s negotiations with congressional leaders, leaving the talks on his side to chief of staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
Trump’s embrace of executive actions to sidestep Congress runs in sharp contrast to his criticism of former President Barack Obama’s use of executive orders on a more limited basis. And the president’s step-back from talks with Congress breaks with his self-assured negotiating skills.
Now, Trump, who has not spoken with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi since last year, sought to play the role of election-year savior, with the $400 weekly assistance, as well as a deferral of payroll tax and federal student loan payments and the continuation of a freeze on some evictions during the crisis.
“It’s $400 a week, and we’re doing it without the Democrats,” Trump said, asking states to cover 25% of the cost. Trump is seeking to set aside $44 billion in previously approved disaster aid to help states maintain supplemental pandemic jobless benefits, but Trump said it would be up to states to determine how much, if any of it, to fund, so the benefits could be smaller still.
Many states have been facing budget shortfalls due to the Coronavirus pandemic and would have difficulty assuming the new obligation. The previous unemployment benefit was fully funded by Washington.
The president said at his club on Friday night that “if Democrats continue to hold this critical relief hostage I will act under my authority as president to get Americans the relief they need.”
Democrats had said they would lower their spending demands from $3.4 trillion to $2 trillion but said the White House needed to increase their offer. Republicans have proposed a $1 trillion plan.
White House aides have watched the talks break down with apprehension, fearful that failure to close a deal could further damage an economic recovery already showing signs of slowing down. Friday’s jobs report, though it beat expectations, was smaller than the past two months, in part because a resurgence of the virus has led to states rolling back their reopenings.
The president’s team believes the economy needs to stabilize and show signs of growth for him to have any chance at winning reelection. Aides were hoping to frame the expected executive orders signings as a sign that Trump was taking action in a time of crisis. But it also would reinforce the view that the president, who took office declaring he was a dealmaker, was unable to steer the process to an agreement.
Trump said Saturday the orders “will take care of pretty much this entire situation, as we know it.” But they are far smaller in scope than congressional legislation, and even aides acknowledged they didn’t meet the needs of all that was required.
“This is not a perfect answer — we’ll be the first ones to say that,” Meadows said Friday as talks broke down.