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Trump takes another step towards authoritarianism as America grapples with the coronavirus pandemic

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Terry H. Schwadron
Terry H. Schwadron

No sooner did Donald Trump sign the $2-trillion coronavirus aid bill last Friday than he immediately made clear that he intends to break the new law to insist on his own powers, not those dictated by Congress, in seeing how money gets spent.

One of the main blocking points to the bill as originally outlined by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Republican caucus was that bailout monies would be given to businesses and industries by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin without any oversight or even any disclosure for six months, after the November elections.

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Naturally, Democrats balked and forced Mnuchin and the White House to retreat before the bill became law.

Instead, the parties agreed to set up an inspector general’s office to review payments, report on them, and for Mnuchin to answer Congressional inquiries about what businesses will have received monies, whether they retained employees as promised, and barred use of such funds for corporate stock buybacks.

In a White House statement, Trump called the law’s mandate for a Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery “unreasonable.” The White House said the administration will not allow the inspector general to tell Congress about disbursements without “presidential supervision,” and called the law a violation of executive branch authority.

So, here we go again, with a president who so demands expansion of the powers of the Oval Office as to put us back on the road to authoritarianism. In TrumpWorld, only Donald Trump has the power to decide life and death or people, of who gets ventilators, and what companies or industries will survive.

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As The New York Times laid out yesterday, there is a discernible push towards more power for authoritarian-minded leaders globally. Leaders in Hungary and Jordan as well as democracies in Britain and Israel are taking advantage of the situation to extend central powers for surveillance, movement and detention that may prove difficult to remove post-emergency.

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As it has made clear this week in pushbacks with governors, Trump only wants to speak to governors and mayors who are outwardly appreciative of his administration’s help, choosing ill language and foot-dragging to some other states. This is well beyond the PR President who insists on having his own signature on every aid check to individual Americans; this is a danger sign of the impeachment variety all over again.

Let’s go back to what was negotiated: A new inspector general, confirmed by the Senate, is supposed to monitor how the Treasury Department extends loans and loan guarantees to businesses to ensure proper use of money, and specifically to ensure that Trump properties do not profit. The inspector general is to notify Congress immediately if the White House doesn’t cooperate with an audit or investigation – a step demanded since the White House has balked at Congressional oversight altogether.

But Trump says no.  “I do not understand, and my Administration will not treat, this provision as permitting the [inspector general] to issue reports to the Congress without the presidential supervision required by the Take Care Clause, Article II, section 3,” the White House statement said.

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Clearly there is a lot of discretion in how about $400 billion of the $2-trillion bill gets spent. As news reports suggest, Trump wants certain industries, such as hotels and cruise ships, to have access to the taxpayer-backed funding—even if they are not American taxpaying corporations, like much of the cruise ship industry. The Treasury Department has not said so far how it will decide who receives money and what the terms will be. Trump said he would be consulting with Wall Street executives to make decisions.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on MSNBC that the White House statement was  “indicative of the difference between Democrats and Republicans when it came to this bill.” Congress will also soon establish its own panel, as allowed under law, “in real time to make sure we know where those funds are,” Pelosi said.

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Earlier in the week, when asked about oversight of the lending programs, Trump told reporters that “I’ll be the oversight.”

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As soon as Trump refuses, we’ll have a Constitutional dust-up on top of a medical emergency and an economic meltdown. The only common factor is the Trump ego sitting in the driver’s seat for all solution-thinking.

Trump also is setting himself as the one to declare some counties as low medical risk, is also the one pushing particular drug treatments for the virus without medical training or intelligence, is also the one who is holding sway over distribution of vital medical supplies and equipment for personal  political advancement in a reelection year.

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Congress may take any refusal to court, but that is unlikely to resolve for months. And clearly there will be no repeat impeachment options. There is only the November election looming, and even that now is talked about in certain tentative ways about how the public votes during a medical emergency resulting in lockdowns.

With a fourth economic recovery bill looming in Congress, non-compliance will assure the opposite of a well-oiled, bipartisan response. No, we’ll see a partisan brawl that Trump could simply avoid by obeying the new law he just signed.

The president is not above the law. And if he is acting in the public good in this distribution of business bailouts, what’s the harm in allowing oversight by Congress or an inspector general?

This is about an ego-centric Donald Trump who insists on his way. To me, it is a warning sign that the medical emergency should be no mask for authoritarian takeover.

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