President Donald Trump's big executive power move ostensibly meant to support laid-off workers and stimulate the economy is already mired in confusion that threatens to leave millions of jobless Americans waiting in vain for help from Washington.
White House advisers struggled to explain Sunday exactly what the flurry of presidential actions, signed by Trump after the breakdown of talks with congressional Democrats on a new coronavirus rescue package, actually do or how quickly they might work. But it's already clear the measures fall well short of the President's billing.
In many ways, his intervention on Saturday is a typical Trump gambit. His executive actions appear hurriedly written and thought out — designed for a political flourish rather than as a sound foundation for governing.
While the President claims to have stepped in to protect American workers, his actions may not deliver the help Americans need -- especially since his memorandum on unemployment benefits actually lowers federal payments from the $600 level under a previous Congressional package and his order for "assistance to renters and homeowners" does not extend the eviction moratorium that has already expired. His decision to unveil the measures Saturday in a rambling, hyper political news conference at his New Jersey golf club, playing to a gallery of well-heeled members, bolstered the impression of a political stunt.
That was especially the case since the President accompanied his announcement with untrue claims about election fraud and the true state of the pandemic -- which hit the 5 million infections mark on Sunday as more than 1,000 Americans die every day from the disease.
Initial indications of the flaws of Trump's actions make it even clearer that answers for Americans relying on federal money after losing jobs in the pandemic will only come with a resumption of negotiations. That is a process that could take weeks until Trump and Democrats reassess the political fallout of the clash and one side decides it has to break for political reasons.
The President's move, for instance, to defer payroll tax contributions for some Americans is already faltering amid Constitutional arguments that only Congress sets tax policy and signs of wariness among many companies and the fear of saddling employees with a big end-of-year bill if deductions are halted.
Meanwhile, Trump's plan to extend special federal unemployment benefits, albeit at a lower level, rests on states finding more money for laid-off workers and is sure to be undercut by the busted budgets of governors who have seen treasuries cleaned out by the fight against the coronavirus.
"Well, if they don't, they don't," Trump said on Saturday about governors agreeing to his plan. "That's up to them. But if they don't, they don't. That's going to be their problem. I don't think their people will be too happy. They have the money."
These and other deficiencies of the executive actions mean that two goals -- getting money quickly to struggling Americans and stimulating the economy -- are unlikely to be improved much by his attempted show of force.
By Sunday evening, after a day of negative reaction from the states, the President appeared to be rowing back his demands for governors to contribute 25% of extended unemployment benefits. He only succeeded in adding more confusion.
"We have a system where we can do 100% or we can do 75%, they pay 25, and it will depend on the state," Trump told reporters before returning to the White House from his resort in New Jersey. "And they will make a application. We will look at it, and we'll make a decision."
'We've had it'
Still, the President may be banking on a short-term political payoff -- which may explain his refusal to get involved directly in the original negotiations -- a move that allowed him to pose as the powerful figure sweeping in to solve the problem.
"I'm taking executive action. We've had it. And we're going to save American jobs and provide relief to the American workers," Trump said on Saturday, repeatedly and, either by accident or design, misleadingly referring to the actions, which lack the weight of congressionally-passed law, as "bills."
From a political perspective, after months taking heat over his botched pandemic leadership, Trump at least looked proactive and tried to position himself as a voice for working Americans as he trails in Midwestern swing states.
But if already obvious deficiencies in his executive action strategy do materialize and money fails to reach the unemployed quickly, the saga may only reinforce his reputation for incompetence.
And long-term, Trump's moves could do much more than just harm his own political standing. Many of the measures he signed come with serious long-term consequences -- cutting the payroll tax could worsen the already shaky finances of Social Security -- that will unfold years after Trump leaves office.
And they involve power grabs that challenge Constitutional norms -- but that are ruled legal by a White House Counsel's office that often accommodates Trump's belief that a President can do what he wants.
Praise from many Republicans over Trump's move also reflected the hypocrisy of many conservatives who raised the alarm when President Barack Obama flexed executive power but meekly go along with this President's own far more flamboyant power grabs.
Confusion from Trump's own advisers
One of Trump's top economic advisers, Larry Kudlow, threw out a bewildering collection of figures -- ranging from $700 to $800 to $1,200 -- apparently conflating the maximum ceiling of state and federal benefits and a payroll tax holiday -- that represent an absolute best cast scenario for the President's scheme.
Speaking on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday, Kudlow said the White House hadn't even asked which states could afford to pay $100 a week to workers in benefits -- the amount Trump is demanding states shoulder as part of his plan for a reduced $400 in federal payments.
"We will probably find that out today and tomorrow," Kudlow said.
Trump's memorandum calls on states to pay out 25% of the total federal unemployment benefit of $400. But if a state does not have the money and can't pay, it won't receive the other $300 from the federal government and workers will only be left with existing state unemployment benefits. States will also have to set up an entirely new system to deliver the additional aid.
New York's Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Sunday that Trump's initiative was "laughable."
"You can't now say to states who have no funding, you have to pay 25% of the unemployment insurance," the governor said.
Even Republican Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio -- a must-win state for Trump in November -- said on "State of the Union" that he's not yet sure if his state will take the federal money for unemployment.
A risk for Democrats
Democrats are also taking a risk in this stimulus mess but appear to think that on principle and on politics, they still have an upper hand. Their hopes of coming out of the clash ahead depend on voters concluding that Republicans are trying to low ball workers in their time of need. But if a majority of Americans take the position that the lack of a deal is a typical foul up in Congress with both sides playing politics, Democratic leaders may have miscalculated less than three months before Election Day.
In either case, and whether Trump is being disingenuous or not, the spectacle of politicians squabbling while millions of laid-off Americans struggle is not a good look for either party at a fraught national moment.
House Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Trump's actions, which required the federal government only to study the issue of rent forgiveness — far short of the President's claims of an eviction moratorium, were characterized by "meagerness" and "weakness."
"Either the President doesn't know what he's talking about -- clearly, his aides don't know what he is talking about -- or something's very wrong here about meeting the needs of the American people at this time," Pelosi said on "State of the Union" on Sunday.
Administration officials argued that federal unemployment payments of $600 a week were acting as a disincentive for people to get back to work — despite the fact that the coronavirus is still raging in many regions, forcing local officials to impose limits on business activities in an effort to get it under control.
While Trump claimed to be standing between millions of Americans and penury, Pelosi accused the White House of callously underestimating the toll of the crisis on Americans.
"We were willing to say, we will come down a trillion. That doesn't mean the needs of the American people have gone down. It just means that we recognize that they have a disdain for the needs of the American people," Pelosi told CNN's Dana Bash, attempting to justify her party's unwillingness to compromise on the specific amount of weekly federal benefits.
"That's why they question whether people even need the $600. They say to me, 'Some people just don't want to pay rent.' We're like: 'Well, you know what? Most people do.'"