President Donald Trump’s dark mood has been worsening — and the country is suffering his wrath.
Furious at Senate Republican leaders for acknowledging he lost to President-elect Joe Biden, Trump has so far rejected the coronavirus stimulus package they negotiated with Democrats and his own administration, leaving jobless benefits to lapse for millions of Americans and embarrassing his onetime political allies.
The country, Congress and many of Trump’s closest aides and advisers have remained in the dark as to what he intends to do.
He tweeted Sunday night, “Good news on Covid Relief Bill! Information to follow,” and a private ballroom at Mar-a-Lago is set up for him to finally sign the relief package and government funding bill — should he decide to do so, according to a CNN source.
Staff at Mar-a-Lago had made preparations for Trump to sign it on Christmas Eve, but the plan was scrapped at the last minute, two sources with knowledge of the circumstances told CNN, denying Americans a holiday gift of relief and setting up the threat of another government shutdown this week.
Convinced social media companies helped rig the election against him, Trump did take action on an unrelated defense bill last week, vetoing it because it didn’t repeal those companies’ liability protections.
Insistent his own government is working against him by ignoring false claims of voter fraud, he’s dangling the prospect of shutting it down as he enjoys a winter holiday in South Florida and the country records its deadliest month since the pandemic’s start with more than 63,000 Americans having died from Covid-19 in December so far.
Eager to help discredit investigations into his own behavior and that of his allies, he’s using his wide-reaching clemency powers to wipe away convictions brought by special counsel Robert Mueller, undermining a system of law and order in the process.
Long driven by grievance, Trump seems to be ensuring no grudge goes unpunished before he leaves office. He is using his remaining days as President to settle scores, even if those left to suffer have nothing to do with his baroque conspiracies or his wounded ego.
Because Trump refused to sign the Covid-19 relief bill — that his own aides helped write — by Saturday night, millions of Americans who were facing their last payment are left without certainty of if or when they’ll receive more assistance. An estimated 12 million Americans who have been laid off are set to receive their final unemployment payment for the week ending this weekend, according to The Century Foundation. The legislation that Trump refuses to sign would extend the number of weeks people can stay on two key pandemic unemployment programs and increase weekly benefits by $300 for all through mid-March.
Trump this weekend continued to demand direct payment checks be increased from $600 to $2,000 — a figure Democrats support but that came a day after the bill passed and Congress left town, leaving jobless Americans in limbo.
That Trump did not make his demands known ahead of time suggests both that he was paying little attention to how the legislation was proceeding and that lines of communication with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill have degraded after they acknowledged Biden’s win.
“It wasn’t clear that the President really was paying attention because he had a lot of other things going on,” Rep. Don Beyer, a Virginia Democrat, said on CNN’s “Newsroom” Saturday.
Those other things have primarily focused on his unsuccessful attempts to overturn the election, which have gained little traction. Initially supportive of Trump’s efforts to challenge the results in court, Senate Republican leaders have mostly moved on to congratulate Biden on his win, enraging Trump and sending him looking for ways to exact revenge.
His refusal thus far to sign the stimulus package has been viewed by at least some Republican officials as doing just that, jabbing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as stingy for not providing adequate checks to Americans, even though Trump’s own negotiators initially proposed the $600 checks during talks.
On Saturday, Trump lashed out at McConnell, writing on Twitter that Senate Republicans “do NOTHING” to help bolster his baseless fraud allegations. He referred to the Senate majority leader simply as “Mitch” and did little to counteract the impression his fixation on the election is clouding any real attempt at governing. In another tweet, he made a reference to large protests expected in Washington on January 6 surrounding formal ratification in Congress of Biden’s electoral victory, an event Trump is convinced can be stopped with help from conservatives and his vice president.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger on Sunday deemed that idea “a scam.” The Illinois Republican told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” that he expects when Congress meets to affirm Biden’s Electoral College win that “it is going to disappoint the people that believe this election was stolen — that think this is an opportunity to change it.”
And Kinzinger told Bash that if Trump wanted $2,000 stimulus checks included in the relief bill he should “negotiate that from the beginning.”
“Let’s have the discussion after this bill is signed, because, right now, we’re at a point where people are left out in the dark. But to play this old switcheroo game, which is just kind of like, I don’t get the point,” he continued. “I don’t understand what’s being done, why, unless it’s just to create chaos and show power and be upset because you lost the election. Otherwise, I don’t understand it, because this just has to get done. Too many people are relying on this. We have worked hard. We should have had this done a lot earlier. And now to be put in a lurch, after the President’s own person negotiated something that the President doesn’t want, it’s just — it’s surprising.”
Others in the President’s party are also growing frustrated.
“The reason it blindsided everybody is because they thought the President was involved when it was obvious he was sleeping on the job when it came to these negotiations,” Rep. Denver Riggleman, a Virginia Republican not returning to Congress, said Saturday on CNN’s “Newsroom.”
“That’s what happens when you get too wrapped up in an election you already lost,” he said.
Trump spreads blame
Trump has appeared less focused on Americans’ hardships than on his own perceived troubles. Even over a holiday when the toll of the pandemic weighed on Americans’ ability to celebrate, he was silent. On Saturday the country reached a grim marker: 1 in 1,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 since the nation’s first reported infection in late January. And on Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, expressed concern that the state of the pandemic might get worse in the next few weeks.
“And the reason I’m concerned and my colleagues in public health are concerned also is that we very well might see a post-seasonal, in the sense of Christmas, New Year’s, surge, and, as I have described it, as a surge upon a surge, because, if you look at the slope, the incline of cases that we have experienced as we have gone into the late fall and soon-to-be-early winter, it is really quite troubling,” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Bash on “State of the Union.” “We are really at a very critical point.”
But the President spent his weekend issuing complaints via Twitter about the entities refusing to entertain his efforts to overturn the election results — a list that now encompasses all three branches of government.
The Supreme Court, which earlier this month refused to hear Trump’s case, “has been totally incompetent and weak,” the President declared on Twitter Saturday. He complained his own administration’s law enforcement agencies “should be ashamed” for not taking up his demands to investigate nonexistent widespread voter fraud, warning them that “History will remember.”
He also continued lambasting Senate Republicans for failing to “step up and fight for the Presidency, like the Democrats would do if they had actually won.”
And early Sunday — about a half hour after unemployment benefits lapsed for millions of Americans — the President retweeted his video statement on the legislation that was originally published to Twitter last week. “Speaking for America!” he wrote along with the first video and then criticized the bill in a comment above the second.
Nowhere has Trump mentioned the prospect of a government shutdown, which now hangs unexpectedly over the holiday period after he refused to sign the funding bill that was attached to the coronavirus relief package.
In that out-of-the-blue video he taped rejecting the package last week, Trump complained about funding levels that are nearly identical to the ones he proposed himself in his budget this year. When asked about that fact this week at his club, Trump has attributed the numbers — particularly on foreign aid — to the “deep state,” according to a person familiar with the conversations, one of the persistent strawmen of his time in office.
It’s the “deep state” Trump has also blamed for investigations into himself and his associates — efforts he is now trying to undermine using his all-encompassing powers of clemency.
Trump has now pardoned four associates — including friend Roger Stone and onetime campaign chairman Paul Manafort — who were brought down by the Mueller investigation, which Trump has complained was an illegal effort to delegitimize his presidency.
His other pardons last week, including for four Blackwater security guards convicted of massacring civilians in Iraq, also appear designed to undercut a system of justice that Trump believes has failed him. The damage for both those who investigated and prosecuted the cases, as well as those who risked everything to testify in them, is great.
“It’s crushing. There’s no other way to describe it,” said Andrew McCabe, the former deputy FBI director who has been attacked by Trump and is now a CNN contributor, on Saturday, singling out the Blackwater case in particular.
“It’s such an unbelievably huge endeavor to convince all of these Iraqi civilians, who are putting themselves in great danger coming to the United States and testifying, to come over here, to take care of them while they’re here,” he said. “To take all of that work, as significant as it was, and just erase it with the stroke of the pen for men who had been convicted essentially of war crimes, it’s just incredibly dispiriting. It’s crushing. That’s the only way to describe it.”
Yet in Trump’s view, it is he who’s been victimized by widespread corruption and criminality, a stance that is now driving much of his actions as his term wanes.
Trump is complaining relentlessly about Section 230, a law that shields internet companies from liability for what is posted on their websites. Trump has alleged that companies like Twitter are part of a Democratic cabal because they label his false tweets as misinformation — including several times on Saturday.
During a round of golf with Sen. Lindsey Graham on Christmas Day, Trump continued to voice his insistence that Section 230 be repealed.
Last week, the President vetoed the defense bill known as the National Defense Authorization Act in part because it did not strip tech firms of those protections. The move set up what could be the first veto override of his presidency, which would pit members of his own party against him.
Yet if the NDAA fails to become law, those feeling the effects would not be disloyal Republicans. Instead it would be American troops and their families who are denied the pay raises, hazard pay and parental leave that are included in the bill, as well as new benefits for Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange and construction projects on military bases.
Like his rejection of the stimulus, the move sets up a loyalty test for Republicans, who for four years have mostly been unwilling to break with their party’s leader.
“There’s definitely going to be those that vote with the President after the fact. A lot of it has to do with their base, or their fundraising, or threats. I think they’re a little bit afraid to stand up right now,” said Riggleman, a former Air Force intelligence officer who lost the GOP nomination in his district this year after officiating a same-sex wedding.
“A lot of us are being called traitors, whether we will override the veto on the NDAA or we want to get a Covid bill through, or get appropriations through, or want to stop this ridiculous Stop the Steal nonsense,” Riggleman said.
“A lot of this is based on the crazy of conspiracy theories and the crazy of disinformation, and I think we need to stand up and stop this nonsense as quickly as possible. It’s just out of control right now.”
Kinzinger told Bash on Sunday the measure “was vetoed for nonsensical reasons,” calling the legislation “a great bill.”
“This is something we have done for 50-some straight years. It was vetoed for nonsensical reasons. This whole Section 230, which has nothing to do with national defense or the NDAA. Somebody just got in the President’s ear and convinced him,” he said, adding later: “I could not justify if I voted for this bill and then voted to sustain the President’s veto, instead of override it. I do not know how you justify that, besides saying, ‘I’m just going to do what the President wants.’ This is a great bill. This goes after China, Russia. It does a lot to shore up our cyber-defenses, which, as we have seen, are extremely vulnerable. To sustain the President’s veto, after you voted for this bill, I just don’t understand.”
This story has been updated with additional details Sunday.