WASHINGTON – As a raw presidential exercise of power, it was a flop. As a political tactic, it turned against him. And as a coda to his last weeks in office, President Trump’s threat to veto a $ 900 billion Covid relief and government funding bill only underscored his tumultuous tenure in the Oval Office. .
For five days starting at Christmas, Mr. Trump virtually held the nation hostage, delaying the extension of unemployment benefits for millions of unemployed Americans, delaying the delivery of $ 600 checks, and throwing off the possibility of a total shutdown of the government. even as officials rushed to distribute a coronavirus vaccine.
And then he gave in.
After calling the bill “disgraceful” and making fun of the checks “miserable,” the president enacted the law on Sunday evening, claiming to have obtained concessions from Congress in the process, including votes to increase individual payments. to 2000 dollars. But in truth, Mr. Trump has made little more than a few bailout promises that will do nothing to substantially change bipartisan legislation.
“This is another example from the history of the Trump presidency,” said Michael Steel, who was press secretary for Ohio Republican John Boehner when Mr. Boehner was Speaker of the House. “He managed a few more chaos days at the end of a chaotic presidency.”
The threat of veto was the latest move to catch the attention of a president who seems unwilling to accept the reality that Washington is moving forward without him. Just 23 days into his tenure, Mr. Trump tried – and failed – to at least ravage the appearance that he still was in control of the nation’s fate.
On Monday, Democrats tested the president’s demands in a House vote to increase individual stimulus payments to $ 2,000, an effort to either gain approval for heavier payments sustained since long by Democrats, or forcing Republicans to reject them and challenge Mr. Trump. The vote just reached the two-thirds majority needed to pass the House, with 44 Republican lawmakers backing the effort.
It is not known whether the Senate will accept such a measure. Senate Republicans resisted the increase in payments, citing concerns about the federal budget deficit, and Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and Majority Leader, in a statement Sunday, made no mention of the payments $ 2,000 or one of the president’s next steps for the chamber he controls.
Mr Trump’s threat to scuttle a Covid relief bill that lawmakers have taken months to agree on came in typically dramatic fashion: On December 22, the president issued a four minute video on Twitter in which he breathlessly ridiculed foreign aid spending and other examples of what he called “pork” in a bill his own Treasury Secretary and Republican lawmakers had negotiated with Democrats in the past. Congress.
“It’s a real shame,” he said, citing spending he approved in his own budget and falsely saying the legislation “had almost nothing to do with Covid.”
He followed up with days of tweets, demanding that lawmakers “Increase payments to citizens” and stop the billions of dollars of “pig”. It was a repeat of the cliffhanger he forced the country to endure in the spring of 2018, when Republican lawmakers were successful in dissuading the president from his threat to veto a $ 1.3 trillion spending deal.
This takeover occurred again over the holiday weekend, as two of his closest allies on Capitol Hill, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader, sought to persuade the president to back down and sign the legislation.
Mr. Graham lobbied Mr. Trump in person during a game of golf on Christmas Day at the President’s Club in West Palm Beach, Florida. And Mr. McCarthy spoke for hours on the phone with Mr. Trump, spending much of Sunday trying to calm down. the president’s concerns as he recovered from elbow surgery, according to officials familiar with the conversations.
But while Mr. Trump’s decision to sign the bill averted the calamity of a government shutdown amid a pandemic that kills more than 1,000 Americans a day, even Republicans have struggled to understand how his veto threat has accomplished a lot of positive things for the president. or his party.
In practical terms, he had very few.
In a statement released after signing the law, Mr. Trump said he “demanded many cancellations,” a technical term for a president’s demands for Congress to allow the administration to cut spending he judge no longer needed.
But as Mr. Trump discovered when he tried a similar tactic in 2018, it only works if a president can mobilize bipartisan support. (That year, several Republicans in the Senate voted against a $ 15 billion cancellation request from Mr. Trump.)
Representative Nita M. Lowey, a New York Democrat and chair of the House Appropriations Committee, made it clear on Sunday that the president’s effort would not succeed.
“The House Appropriations Committee has jurisdiction over cancellations, and our Democratic majority will reject any cancellations submitted by President Trump,” she said in a statement.
Mr. Trump said the House and Senate “have agreed to focus heavily on the very significant voter fraud that took place” in the 2020 election. In fact, the Democratic-led House will certainly ignore this accusation. And even in the Senate, there is little appetite to join the President’s crusade against electoral fraud.
Republican leaders this month urged senators on a private call to accept the election results and not join an effort led by some House Republicans to overturn them.
And Congress is unlikely to buy into Mr. Trump’s call to remove protections for social media companies. He argued without evidence that Section 230 allows websites to censor conservative views, but data shows conservative figures and publishers often thrive online.
While concerns over Section 230 are bipartisan, lawmakers are unlikely to reach agreement on the issue within the next week. Mr. Trump and his allies have yet to find substantial common ground with Democrats who want changes to discriminatory advertising or terrorist content online above all else.
Politically, the president’s veto threats have only served to put his Republican allies in the House and Senate on the spot.
In the House, Republicans keen to reject the $ 2,000 stimulus checks couldn’t just ridicule it as an idea concocted by President Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, who quickly seized on the president’s words to try to pass a bill. legislation that would increase direct payments. . Those who wanted to vote against the higher amount also had to overthrow their own president – and voters who supported him -.
Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, complained in the House that the proposal was “rushed to us at the last minute” and would not help those who needed it most. .
“I am concerned that this $ 463 billion will not be enough to do what is needed, stimulate the economy or help workers return to work,” said Brady.
In the Senate, the president’s five days of reluctance only served to confuse the Republican stance on direct payments, which had been carefully calibrated with senior officials in Mr. Trump’s administration.
For months during negotiations, Senate Republicans resisted increasing payments above $ 600, citing concerns about the federal budget deficit. It is not known if the Senate will even vote on increasing the size of the checks.
Mr. Trump had said that “the Senate will begin the voting process” on the $ 2,000 checks. In the legislative jargon that governs the Senate, this is far from guaranteeing approval of the highest amount.
Brendan Buck, a Republican strategist who served as senior advisor to Paul Ryan of Wisconsin when he was Speaker of the House, said he was deeply skeptical that Republicans would want to champion the president’s cause for stimulus payments higher. And Mr. Buck noted that there was almost no time for that to happen, anyway.
“It’s not based on any reality: substance, politics and the clock. There is no way for that, ”he said. “I feel like he totally gave in and got nothing, and I don’t know why.
In four years in the White House, Mr. Trump has managed to bend Congress to his will. He worked with Republican lawmakers to push through a $ 1.5 trillion tax cut in 2017. His Republican allies in the Senate confirmed a record number of federal judges, including three new Supreme Court justices.
But the threat to veto the Covid relief bill was an ultimately fruitless exercise that will do little to strengthen Mr. Trump’s legacy.
David McCabe contribution to reports.