We begin with a foundational premise, a stone-bound axiom learned the hardest of hard ways after three long years: Donald Trump does not care about you, or me, or anyone on this planet. Donald Trump cares only about Donald Trump, full stop, end of file. Do not let the triumphant-sounding weekend headlines about his executive orders fool you; those orders are made of soap bubbles. Yes, friends, it’s yet another scam.
House Democrats passed the HEROES Act back in May. A $3 trillion relief and stimulus package, the HEROES Act provides everything from a (finally!) robust national testing regimen to desperately needed funds for municipalities that are trying to make schools safe enough to reopen someday. Because this bill, and that money, have been left to rot like a dead fish on the dock of Mitch McConnell’s bay for three long months, reopening schools safely today is a practical impossibility with potentially catastrophic consequences.
McConnell and his cohort of Senate Republican wreckers have not been able to get out of their own way long enough to pass a compromise version of the HEROES Act; half the GOP caucus won’t vote for any new money to be spent, a quarter desperately need a deal to stave off electoral defeat this fall, and the last quarter got lost on the way to the restroom trying to plot how to take McConnell’s job after November.
The resulting chaos had caused a dozen weeks to go by without a new relief package from Congress, even as COVID-19 spreads its wings across the entire nation, the emergency unemployment benefit has run out, and millions face eviction as their last lingering funds run out.
In swooped Trump on Saturday for a “press conference” at his Bedminster country club. In a room filled with maskless golf-shirted partisans, Trump announced a series of executive orders he claimed would accomplish what Congress has failed to do. “Trump announced he was postponing payroll taxes through the end of the year, extending the unemployment ‘bonus’ at $400 a week (down from $600), helping people ‘stay in their homes’ and waiving student debt payments through the end of 2020,” reported The Washington Post.
The thing is, these orders appear to have been conceived primarily to help one person: Trump.
Let’s take these one at a time, starting with the crown jewel: Social Security. The payroll tax exists to fund that fundamental program, among others. Elimination of the payroll tax won’t help anyone affected by the pandemic, nor will it affect those currently receiving Social Security benefits for the most part, but it will defund those vital programs just in time for Generation X to retire.
Trump can’t rewrite tax laws by fiat from his golf cart, no matter how loudly his Izod-bros cheer him on. The profoundly Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska immediately threw a bucket of ice water on this nonsense move.
“The pen-and-phone theory of executive lawmaking is unconstitutional slop,” Sasse said in a stinging statement, concluding, “President Trump does not have the power to unilaterally rewrite the payroll tax law. Under the Constitution, that power belongs to the American people acting through their members of Congress.”
Boom. Other GOP senators like Lindsey Graham were more obsequious in their pushback, but they pushed back all the same. “I appreciate the President taking this decisive action but would much prefer a congressional agreement,” cooed Graham. “I believe President Trump would prefer the same.”
This was an uncommon display of fortitude in our dim and degraded age; these fellows have been reliably docile sheep for Trump to shear at his pleasure. When Trump attempted to put the sword to the payroll tax, however, they located some enlightened self-interest at long last.
Most Senate Republicans are interested in keeping the nation’s purse strings firmly in the hands of Congress, and there isn’t a single Republican senator who thinks it’s a good idea to eviscerate Social Security less than three months before a national election. Trump may as well have announced an executive order renaming all the avenues in the U.S. “Bigly Way,” and mandate that each of them come with a fat orange stripe down the middle of the road. He can sign it, but the ink is worth more than the order.
By Sunday, the outraged screams of Democrats and the mewling of petrified Republicans had managed to penetrate the steel-reinforced thought bubble encasing the White House. “White House advisors on Sunday walked back President Trump’s statement that he would make ‘permanent cuts’ to the payroll tax if reelected,” reported Forbes, “insisting that the president would preserve the primary funding source for Social Security, an entitlement program with overwhelming bipartisan support.”
This thing was dead as Dillinger before the word-noises passed Trump’s puckered lips. So why do it? Because a year ago, the White House reportedly reached out to South Dakota’s Republican Gov. Kristi Noem to inquire with a straight face about the process of getting Trump’s likeness carved onto Mt. Rushmore (a claim Trump is now disputing). Because hubris of that density has enough gravity to bend the light, so why not make a run at Social Security in the depths of a pandemic crisis he has resolutely failed to contain. It certainly changed the subject for a few days, which was the whole point of the exercise.
As for the other three orders, well, they’re mostly what you’d expect from a lifelong grifter looking to win some weekend headlines. The $400 emergency unemployment benefit is actually a benefit cut that will adversely affect municipalities all across the country. Trump wants $100 of that $400 to come from CARES Act funding that has already been disbursed to and spent by said municipalities. Sucking $100 per claim back out of that COVID relief money will further harm already overburdened local governments everywhere.
Trump is not “helping people stay in their homes,” as another order claims. “Trump has said many times in recent days he wants to prevent evictions, but his latest executive order does not ban evictions,” reports the Post. “Instead, Trump calls for Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield to ‘consider’ whether an eviction ban is needed.” Consider, eh? That’s mighty landlord of ya, Don. (emphasis added)
The fourth executive order Trump signed does have a drop of human kindness in it, but only temporarily. The order waives interest on all federal government-backed student loans and lets people delay payments on those loans until Dec. 31. This will certainly be helpful. However, all principal payments owed will be due on that final day of the year, full payments will begin again on New Year’s Day, and there is little promise the financial situation will have improved by then. Plus, legally speaking, no one is quite sure if Trump has the power to do this in the first place.
Larry Kudlow, Trump’s director of the National Economic Council and guy who formerly screamed about the stock market on television for a living, went on CNN with Dana Bash to “explain” how these executive orders are the heroic measures America needs in this hour of deepest need… except he couldn’t explain it, like, at all, and Bash basically had to limp him through the interview. “Okay, we’ll move on because I think this is not what the president said and it’s a bit confusing,” said Bash, “and I think the fact that it’s not entirely known is very telling.”
Actually, it is not confusing at all. Trump has a long track record of unfurling legally laughable nonsense orders whenever the political heat is on, and right now, that heat could melt the sun. This weekend eruption of orders is more sleight of hand from a president whose COVID response has contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands of people, in a country that is facing tens of thousands of additional deaths as winter inexorably approaches. Meanwhile, schools are recklessly reopening at his urging, and his own supporters steadfastly refuse to listen to those they dismiss as egghead scientists from the “deep state” about the lethal severity of COVID-19.
Put plainly, Saturday’s press conference and executive order spectacle was nothing more or less than a splash of the amniotic fluid from which Trump first emerged into national politics: an episode of reality TV. The papers took the headline bait over the weekend. Don’t be those guys.