Trump Demands Changes to Coronavirus Relief Bill, Calling It a ‘Disgrace’

Source: By Luke Broadwater and Alan Rappeport, New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The president sought bigger checks for Americans and a bill that dealt more specifically with pandemic relief.

The president, who has been preoccupied with the baseless claim that the election was stolen from him, seized on congressional leaders’ decision to pass the relief bill by combining it with a broader spending plan to fund government operations and the military. That spending plan includes routine provisions like foreign aid and support for Washington institutions like the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Smithsonian.

But Mr. Trump portrayed such spending items as “wasteful and unnecessary” additions to the coronavirus legislation.

“It’s called the Covid relief bill, but it has almost nothing to do with Covid,” Mr. Trump said in a video posted online. “Congress found plenty of money for foreign countries, lobbyists and special interests while sending the bare minimum to the American people.”

“I am asking Congress to amend this bill and increase the ridiculously low $600 to $2,000,” he added.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who had been pressing for similarly sized checks, welcomed Mr. Trump’s intervention.

“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 wrote on Twitter.

House Democrats planned to bring up the $2,000 payments for a vote by unanimous consent on Thursday, said an aide who was familiar with the proposal.

In recent weeks, congressional leaders and a bipartisan group of moderates have worked around the clock to deliver a relief package aimed at saving businesses from closure, funding distribution of coronavirus vaccines and providing President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. with a stable economy when he takes office in January.

The $900 billion relief package revived supplemental unemployment benefits for millions of Americans at $300 a week for 11 weeks and provided for a round of $600 direct payments to adults and children. Republican and Democratic leaders hailed the bill as a badly needed stopgap measure until a new Congress can convene next year to consider providing more stimulus.

The bill passed with an overwhelming, veto-proof margin.

“Help is on the way,” said Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader.

But Mr. Trump, who sat out the negotiations, demanded on Tuesday that the government distribute much larger direct payments, despite opposition to such spending from Senate Republicans.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, enlisted the president in the Democrats’ push to get larger coronavirus relief checks to Americans next year.

“Trump needs to sign the bill to help people and keep the government open,” he wrote on Twitter, “and we’re glad to pass more aid Americans need. Maybe Trump can finally make himself useful and get Republicans not to block it again.”

The president’s move surprised even senior administration officials on Tuesday night and represented an embarrassment for his top economic lieutenant, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who helped negotiate the agreement with Congress and applauded the passage of the bill on Tuesday.

“We are fully committed to ensuring that hardworking Americans get this vital support as quickly as possible and to further strengthening our economic recovery,” Mr. Mnuchin said in a statement on Tuesday in which he thanked Mr. Trump for his leadership.

In a CNBC interview on Monday, Mr. Mnuchin said, “It was a great birthday present for me to have Congress pass this today.”

He had said hundreds of dollars in direct payments authorized by the bill could begin reaching individual Americans as early as next week.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Mnuchin also cited his role in the negotiations earlier on Tuesday, noting that he had participated in 190 calls about the legislation between Dec. 14 and Dec. 20 that included the president, Treasury staff members and congressional leaders. During the talks, Mr. Mnuchin pushed for bigger direct payments on behalf of the president in exchange for cutting supplemental unemployment benefits.

Current and former administration officials speculated on Tuesday evening that Mr. Trump did not like the narrative that he had been sidelined from the negotiations and that calling for higher direct payments was a political move to please his base.

In order to pass the bill before Christmas and hasten its enactment, congressional leaders combined the relief bill with the $1.4 trillion year-end spending bill to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. That bill also served as a vehicle to pass myriad new policies, such as the establishment of two Smithsonian museums, a ban on surprise medical bills and a restoration of Pell grants for incarcerated students.

But the voluminous combined bill — weighing in at 5,593 pages — and the speed with which it was passed on Monday drew criticism from both the left and the right, even as most in Congress voted for the legislation without having the time to fully read it.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, likened the rushed vote on so many unread measures to “hostage-taking,” and Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, wrote on Twitter that it was “ABSURD.”

Questions about some of the provisions in the legislation that aided other countries were also raised on “Fox & Friends,” one of Mr. Trump’s favorite morning news programs, on Tuesday. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and a Trump ally, defended a measure in the bill that would send aid money to Pakistan in an interview on the show: “Pakistan is a place I really worry about.”

Besides rebuking lawmakers for sending money to other countries, Mr. Trump also criticized a provision in the relief bill that would allow some family members of undocumented immigrants to claim benefits. He also said a measure that would allow business expenses at restaurants to be deducted for two years was insufficient and called for it to be extended for a longer, unspecified, period of time.

In a tirade on Twitter on Tuesday evening, Mr. Trump also repeated his baseless claims that he lost the election because of widespread fraud. He also lashed out at the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, John Thune of South Dakota, who told reporters in the Capitol this week that the president’s plans to try to overturn the will of the electorate through a congressional vote were not going anywhere.

“I mean, in the Senate it would go down like a shot dog,” Mr. Thune said. “And I just don’t think it makes a lot of sense to put everybody through this when you know what the ultimate outcome is going to be.”

In response, Mr. Trump called Mr. Thune a “RINO” — Republican in name only — and “Mitch’s boy” and said he should “just let it play out. South Dakota doesn’t like weakness. He will be primaried in 2022, political career over!!!”

Democrats in Congress seemed to be enjoying the Republican-on-Republican attacks.

“If his major concern is he wants $2,000 relief checks, I’m sure we can accommodate his desires,” said Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland and a member of Ms. Pelosi’s leadership team. “On the Democratic side, we have been pushing for a much larger package for months.”

Should Mr. Trump veto the bill after sitting out negotiations, Mr. Raskin said, it would be a “ludicrous way to run government, but it’s a fitting end to his presidency.”