A major part of Donald Trump's public persona is that he's a great businessman. He points to his personal wealth and real estate holdings as evidence of this. Simply pay no attention to the millions he inherited from his father or the number of his businesses that have gone bankrupt over the years. He even has an entire book, The Art of the Deal, explaining his views on business and how to be a success (Step 1: Be born into a rich family). However, throughout his presidency, we've had opportunities to see his strategies publicly, and this past weekend gave us one more. After months of negotiations, Congress passed a second stimulus bill to provide relief during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Trump initially refused to sign it. When he signed the bill a couple days later, what had the master dealmaker won for the American people?
Let's start with what led to Congress passing the bill. The first stimulus, CARES Act, was signed into law back in March. It allocated about $2 trillion for all types of economic relief during the pandemic, including cash payments to all individuals and families earning less than certain amounts, increases and extensions of unemployment benefits, loans for businesses, and support for hospitals and food banks. In May, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed a second stimulus of about $3 trillion titled the HEROES Act. The Republican-controlled Senate did not hold a vote on the bill itself. However, this started months of debate over what the size of a second bill should be and what it should include. Senate Republicans wanted it to be less than $1 trillion; House Democrats came down to $2.2 trillion; Trump's treasury secretary proposed $1.8 trillion. Finally, last week, both houses of Congress passed $900 billion for COVID relief as part of a larger $2.3 trillion bill to fund the federal government.
So, why wouldn't Trump sign it? This was the result of months of negotiations, including with members of his own administration. His reason was the one-time cash payments to individuals and families should be higher, $2000 instead of $600 for individuals. Now, I agree that the bill passed in Congress doesn't go far enough. Its increases to both the amount and duration of unemployment benefits are insufficient. The one-time cash payments will not come close to sustaining people through the remainder of the pandemic. A third relief package will likely be needed early next year. The real problem with Trump's move was the timing. If higher cash payments were really important to him, he could have pushed for them any time since May. The original version of the HEROES Act had only $1200 payments for individuals. Everyone involved in the negotiations knew any bill passed would need his signature, so his input would clearly matter. Instead, he waited until after a deal had been completed and previous benefits were about to expire to demand a change adding hundreds of billions to a bill his own party had spent months negotiating down. At that point in the process, it was never likely to get done. So, Trump got to spend a couple days acting like he was fighting for the people without really doing so, while maybe trying to get back at Republican senators for finally admitting he lost the 2020 election. Meanwhile, due to the delay, those eligible for unemployment lost one week of increased benefits. A true masterpiece!