IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Trump plays a now-familiar role in critical coronavirus talks: observer

The deal-maker candidate's firm transition to bystander president has been especially striking during what may be the final, defining congressional negotiation before Election Day.
Image: President Trump Holds News Conference In Brady Press Briefing Room
President Donald Trump's apparent lack of direct personal involvement in the stimulus talks fits with his broader response to policy pushes in general and the coronavirus response in particular.Chris Kleponis / Polaris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump sold himself to Americans in 2016 as the ultimate deal-maker. But as he runs for re-election — amid talks that represent one of his final shots at a significant response to what may be the biggest crisis of his presidency — he has notably embraced a very different role: that of interested bystander.

Following a well-established pattern, the president has largely stayed removed from negotiations over a new coronavirus relief bill that would resume federal unemployment benefits and protect millions of people from eviction, White House officials said. Trump has had no contact with the two lead Democratic negotiators — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York — and he has deferred to his aides on the substance of a bill.

It's a familiar approach. In 2018, Trump largely stood to the side during weeks of congressional negotiations over a bipartisan bill on immigration — only to sabotage it at the eleventh hour, tweeting that Republicans were wasting their time and threatening to veto the measure days before it was set for a vote.

In negotiations last year between the White House and congressional Democrats and Republicans on gun control legislation, Trump's public waffling on key issues like background checks made it difficult for Republicans to get behind any effort. No legislation backed by the White House was ever introduced.

Now, Trump's limited role in the latest aid bill talks — on a subject affecting millions of people and threatening to drag down the economy — is the latest issue to draw that approach, just one of a number of fronts where he continues to play a supporting role in the coronavirus response.

While Trump has resumed regular public comments on the pandemic, he has delegated much of the day-to-day response to Vice President Mike Pence, who travels more often to the most affected states, is in regular contact with governors and leads federal coronavirus task force meetings — which the president doesn't regularly attend.

While talks continued Thursday on Capitol Hill, Trump planned to travel to Ohio for a campaign event and then to his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club. Before leaving the White House, Trump repeated a threat that he would take action on his own as early as Friday if there was no agreement — but he didn't indicate any plans to become personally involved in the discussions.

"Upon departing the Oval Office for Ohio, I've notified my staff to continue working on an Executive Order with respect to Payroll Tax Cut, Eviction Protections, Unemployment Extensions, and Student Loan Repayment Options," Trump tweeted Thursday.

Asked why Trump wasn't more directly involved in the negotiations with Congress, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Tuesday that he was involved "through his chief of staff and through his secretary of the Treasury."

"He's regularly updated," she said. "I was just in the Oval Office with him, and the chief of staff was updating him on that very measure."

A person close to Trump said he left it largely to chief of staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to "crystallize" what would be acceptable to the Republican base in negotiating a deal. The person said the president provided guidance from a "30,000-foot view," with very few red lines.

Asked specifically Wednesday in a Fox News interview about the $600-a-week federal unemployment payment that has been the crux of negotiations with Democrats, Trump was thin on specifics.

"We want to get funds to people so they can live," he said. "But we don't want to disincentivize people from going back to work." The White House had proposed limiting unemployment payments to 70 percent of a recipient's previous wages, but it is now discussing a fixed payment of $400 a week.

The statement appeared to mark a return to a previously abandoned idea: Trump, at one point, had seemed to draw a line in the sand over including a payroll tax cut in a new bill before White House officials backed away, saying there was too much opposition from Democrats and suggesting it could be addressed in a separate bill.

It fit with his increasingly common statements that he would avoid personal involvement in existing processes and discussions and would, instead, use executive orders on a range of topics, including immigration, mail-in voting and drug costs — high-visibility election-year moves that may have little real world impact — after has was unable to make any deals with Congress on those fronts over the past three years.

While Trump may have sidestepped direct involvement in coronavirus relief negotiations, he and his team have threatened a wide array of executive actions on everything from extending federal unemployment benefits to eliminating the payroll tax — even though authority over taxes and appropriating tax revenue rests with Congress and his ability to make those moves may be far more limited than he has described.

So far, he has made no significant moves through executive orders, and any plans to take unilateral action over coronavirus aid have been on hold while Mnuchin and Meadows continue negotiations.

"Right now, we're continuing to consider all the options that we have before us, but as long as we're making substantial progress in our negotiations, we're hopeful that we'll provide the fruit necessary to bring this to a close," Mnuchin said Tuesday evening.

Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics

With relations between Trump and congressional Democrats so strained, it's possible he could do more harm than good were he to get more involved, said a former congressional staffer close to the White House. Two meetings between Trump and Democrats last year ended with one side walking out — Trump abruptly left a meeting on infrastructure in May 2019, and Democrats left a meeting on Syria in October.

This time, as coronavirus aid discussions blow past critical deadlines, Trump is once again offering ideas from the sidelines, alternately endorsing ideas that lack Republican buy-in without reaching out to Democrats who have pushed for them or appearing to insist on approaches that lack support on either side of the aisle.

When he began pushing for a short-term patch last week to protect renters and extend unemployment insurance, some Republicans immediately resisted. A number of Republicans have also balked at his push for a payroll tax cut, a non-starter with Democratic leadership.

Trump's apparent lack of direct involvement in the stimulus talks fits with his broader response to policy pushes in general and the coronavirus response in particular. While the president has made recent moves to appear more engaged after aides told him that polling showed that the majority of Americans disapproved of his handling of the crisis, his involvement has remained limited.

He traveled to North Carolina last month to visit a lab involved in vaccine production, but he was at the facility for only an hour, during which he gave a 20-minute news conference. He held a meeting on coronavirus and hurricane preparations while in Florida for campaign events. During a trip to Texas, one of the hardest-hit states this summer, he attended a fundraiser and visited an oil rig, but he had no specific meetings about the state's response to the pandemic.

White House officials have set up new messaging efforts to raise Trump's visibility, but there are no plans for ambitious policy pushes, a national consolidation of testing or any defined presidential action in what may be the final concrete federal response to the virus before Election Day. Instead, Trump continues to take a wait-and-see approach to negotiations, pointing to his team's involvement — but not planning his own.

"We're negotiating right now as we speak, and we'll see how that works out," he said at a news conference Wednesday.