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Trump signs executive actions on coronavirus economic relief

Democrats promised last week to file a legal challenge if the president acted through executive order to circumvent Congress, which has the constitutional authority to determine federal spending.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump shows signed executive orders for economic relief during a news conference amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J. on Aug. 8, 2020.Joshua Roberts / Reuters

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump signed four executive actions Saturday for coronavirus economic relief, upending negotiations with Congress after lawmakers failed to reach a deal on Friday.

The executive actions defer payroll taxes through the end of the year for Americans earning less than $100,000 a year.

They also defer student loan payments through the end of the year; discourage evictions; and extend enhanced unemployment benefits that expired last week, but at a reduced level of $400 instead of the prior $600.

The payroll-tax memo defers rather than eliminates them, which means the government could choose to collect the money at a later date. Nothing in the order requires employers to stop withholding the tax, which is earmarked to pay for Social Security and Medicare, and it is not clear how many will do so, considering that all the money may have to be paid back.

Trump turned the payroll tax into an instant campaign issue, vowing that he would permanently cut the tax if re-elected. But that decision is up to Congress, where even Republicans have been uninterested in changing the payroll tax rate.

"If I'm victorious on Nov. 3, I plan to forgive these taxes and make permanent cuts to the payroll tax," Trump said. "Joe Biden and the Democrats may not want that, they don't want that."

When asked by reporters why the enhanced unemployment benefits would not be kept at the $600 level, as Democrats had pushed for, Trump said the new rate gives Americans "a great incentive to go back to work.”

The president said he was directing the federal government to cover 75 percent of the enhanced unemployment, and calling on states to cover the remaining 25 percent. That may be difficult for states with revenue shortfalls and budgets stretched thin due to the pandemic.

The actions, which Trump announced in a news conference at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, came after talks with Democrats over another round of assistance hit an impasse Friday.

Democrats promised last week to file a legal challenge if Trump acted through executive order to circumvent Congress, which has the constitutional authority to determine federal spending.

Trump brushed off those challenges Saturday, telling reporters "I guess, maybe they'll bring legal actions, maybe they won't. But they won't win."

It's not clear whether Trump or any president has the power to take many of the actions in the orders, but Trump seemed to be daring Democrats to take him to court to challenge the benefits on separation-of-power grounds, at which point he could accuse them of stopping popular benefits or simply disloyalty.

“I honestly don’t believe they love our country, if you want to know the truth,” Trump said Saturday, criticizing Democrats' response to the pandemic.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows indicated after talks with Democrats appeared to break down on Friday that Trump could act on his own to implement three pieces under discussion: renewing federal unemployment benefits, extending an eviction moratorium and providing student loan relief.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had previously indicated Trump may have the authority to extend the eviction moratorium. But the text of that executive order does not actually prohibit any evictions; instead, it merely asks federal officials to "consider" whether any measures are necessary to halt evictions for failure to pay rent. Trump's remarks made the order sound far more sweeping than it really is.

Trump first threatened Thursday that if a deal was not reached by the end of the week — a largely arbitrary deadline — then he would utilize executive orders to circumvent Congress and enact jobless benefits and an eviction moratorium on his own.

At the last-minute press conference Friday night, Trump said that an executive order was "being drawn right now" and accused Democrats of holding "critical relief hostage."

The Democratic negotiators, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, told reporters on Friday they had offered the White House a compromise that would have included about $2 trillion in aid, which was rejected.

The two sides also remain far apart on state aid. Democrats and some Republicans have said that amid a financial crunch sparked by the coronavirus pandemic, assistance to states is necessary to ensure vital services like police and firefighters can continue.

Trump has repeatedly said additional state funding would be a "bailout" for blue states, although numerous Republican-led states are also facing coronavirus-caused financial crises.

The two parties also disagreed on how school funding should be disbursed. Pelosi told reporters the White House wants money to go largely to schools that reopen; Democrats want the aid to also fund schools that are unable to reopen and must spend to launch and implement distance learning programs.