Why did President Donald Trump abandon his threat to veto the coronavirus relief package and government funding bill over the weekend? A new report from the Washington Post — which appeared largely to be sourced to Sen. Lindsey Graham — on Monday laid out the case that the president's change of heart was due largely to the lobbying of the South Carolina Republican and other allies.
Graham spent recent days with Trump on the golf course in Florida, debating the merits of the bill, according to the senator. The locale attracted much scrutiny, especially since Trump's delay in signing the bill may have had serious financial costs for people struggling financially, as CNN reported:
...because Trump did not sign the bill on Saturday, those in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation programs will likely not receive a payment for the final week of the year. And the $300 federal enhancement may only last 10 weeks instead of 11 weeks for most folks. That's because states can't provide benefits for weeks that start before programs are authorized, but the legislation calls for the extra payments to end on March 14.
The Post noted that Trump could have been involved in the negotiations prior to the bill's passage through both the House and the Senate. Instead, the president let Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin serve as his surrogate in the debates while he fought to overturn Biden's victory.
But having thrown the bill's future into doubt in the eleventh hour last week, Trump needed persuading to eventually sign it on Sunday.
"While McCarthy worked the phones from California, Mnuchin did the same from his vacation home in Mexico, trying to salvage his reputation as Trump's best dealmaker. Mnuchin had represented Trump on Capitol Hill throughout eight months of off-and-on negotiations, and had assured McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other congressional leaders that Trump would sign the nearly 5,600-page coronavirus relief bill," the Post reported. "In the end, it was Graham's personal touch that helped unlock the potential outlines of a deal. Graham was uniquely positioned to address the president's concerns: He had long shared Trump's gripes about powerful tech companies. As a senior appropriator, he had helped assemble the foreign aid package Trump had railed against. And, unlike McConnell, he hadn't urged fellow Republicans to oppose Trump's attempts to overturn the November election."
Much of the public's attention has been focused, partly because of Democrats' effective messaging, on Trump's demand that direct payments to individuals be increased from $600 to $2,000. But when Trump filmed a Twitter video outlining his objections to the legislation, that was just one of many issues he raised.
He also complained about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives online platforms some liability protections and which the president would like repealed. This section has been the subject of widespread and often confused criticism in right-wing media. And the Post suggested another category of complaints Trump had was also fueled by conservative outlets:
Another factor for Trump was chatter on right-wing websites and social media about foreign aid and other congressional "pork" — items negotiated separately from the $900 billion coronavirus measure but bundled with it into a single package. For example, Trump had complained about $25 million for democracy and gender programs in Pakistan, $25 million to combat Asian carp, and $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt, contrasting that spending with Congress's stinginess on the stimulus checks.
But Graham and others noted a political problem: Most of that money had been proposed in Trump's own budget and had Republican support in Congress. The Asian carp money, for example, is intended to combat the spread of an invasive species in Kentucky and Tennessee.
Trump is too proud to simply back down publicly after he's been shown his complaints are misguided, though, so his Republican allies gave him an out. According to the Post, Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio suggested request recissions after signing the bill — essentially, this is a way for the administration to tell Congress it doesn't need the money that Congress has approved for it to spend. But Congress can simply reject any recissions Trump proposes and insist that the money be spent as the law requires.
Trump also believed he got a promise that the Senate would hold a vote on Section 230 and the $2,000 checks, all of which was enough for him to cave on the veto threat but still declare victory. But it's not really clear if the Republican-controlled Senate will actually adhere to either of these demands — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's statement on Trump's signing didn't mention that he had made any such agreements:
So here's where Trump is left: He may get a vote on the $2,000 checks, after all, but if it happens, it will likely be the result of Democrats' arm-twisting, not Trump's. There may or may not be a vote on Section 230, but it's exceedingly unlikely to be altered while Trump is still president. And Trump can request recissions to the budget items he thinks he doesn't like, but Congress can simply reject them.
The question, then, is: Did Trump get played? Did his allies convince him to cave without actually giving him anything substantial in return? Or did he know he had nothing to gain and just accepted trivial face-saving measures. Perhaps in this scenario, one could say Trump played himself.