Trump signals he might not sign relief package

By Jordan Fabian
Bloomberg News/TNS

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump injected confusion into the outlook for COVID-19 relief on Tuesday night, demanding changes to the bipartisan legislation approved by Congress less than 24 hours earlier.

In a surprise video announcement posted on his Twitter account, Trump called the bill a “disgrace” and said it was full of “wasteful and unnecessary” items. He demanded that lawmakers increase the stimulus checks due to go out to most Americans from the “ridiculously low” amount of $600 to $2,000 - or $4,000 for a couple.

“I am asking Congress to amend this bill,” Trump said. “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, and we will get it done.”

The attack on Monday’s legislation, which included $900 billion in relief along with $1.4 trillion in government funding through next September, marked a sudden change after the administration had endorsed frantic negotiations among congressional leaders to get a deal after months of stalemate.

If the president doesn’t sign the legislation by Dec. 28, government funding would lapse after midnight that day.

Stock futures dropped after Trump’s video message, with futures on the S&P 500 Index down 0.5% as of 10:29 a.m. in Tokyo Wednesday.

Earlier Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had lauded the package, tweeting that it would provide “critical economic relief for American workers, families and businesses.”

Trump himself tweeted on Dec. 17, “Stimulus talks looking very good.”

Trump on Tuesday night didn’t specify whether he would veto the measure. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded to Trump’s video message by saying she welcomed his call for $2,000 checks for most Americans.

“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!” she tweeted.

The House adjourned after approving the bill, with a Dec. 28 return date. The Senate is next scheduled to convene for regular business on Dec. 29.

If Trump vetoes or declines to sign the measure, it would suspend benefits from the previous COVID relief bill that expire at the end of the month, including a moratorium on evictions and extended unemployment insurance - all of which were addressed in the giant package approved Monday night.

Trump said the stimulus bill had “taken forever” to come together and blamed Democrats of having “cruelly blocked” aid to improve their chances of winning the 2020 election.

Soon after his tweet, one of his close allies in Congress, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, renewed his support of the measure.

“The #COVID19 package, while imperfect, will save jobs and lives. The sooner the bill becomes law - the better,” Graham tweeted.

Trump’s rant about the package came after he took a mostly hands-off approach to negotiations with Congress for months. He declined to engage directly with Pelosi, nor did he convene bipartisan congressional leaders in White House meetings to get a deal.

Still, Trump had indicated privately during the negotiations that he was unhappy with some of the provisions. The president had been working on a statement calling for $2,000 stimulus checks, but White House chief of staff Mark Meadows raised objections to releasing it amid the fragile talks, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Trump also sent conflicting signals about how big a package he wanted. He at one point pulled his team from talks with Democrats, then demanded a bigger bill than Pelosi herself had favored.

With regard to direct payments, a member of his own party, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, personally blocked bipartisan attempts to approve $1,200 checks instead of the $600 that ended up in the bill - citing concerns about the fiscal deficit.

Senior Senate GOP members in recent days touted that they kept the relief effort below $1 trillion, instead of the $2 trillion and more sought by Democrats, only now to be undercut but a lame-duck president after the fact.

“It really is a disgrace,” Trump said of the bill passed Monday, saying that not enough money was given for small businesses, especially restaurants, while money went to aid other countries including Cambodia and Egypt.

Foreign aid was included as part of the omnibus package of regular spending bills, however, and generally is enacted every year.

In addition to the $600 checks, the relief package includes hundreds of billions of dollars for small businesses and supplemental unemployment benefits for those who lost their job during the pandemic. It also includes money for schools, airlines and to distribute vaccines.

Separately, Trump also lashed out at Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican in that chamber. Thune said Monday that any attempt by a handful of House conservatives to challenge the Electoral College’s results proclaiming Joe Biden the next president is “going down like a shot dog.”

“RINO John Thune, ‘Mitch’s boy’, should just let it play out,” Trump said Tuesday, using an abbreviation for Republicans-in-name-only, and referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “South Dakota doesn’t like weakness. He will be primaried in 2022, political career over!!!”

President Donald Trump speaks about the election after presenting the Medal of Freedom to former college football coach Lou Holtz in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 3, 2020.