WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and his campaign have been racing to score a political boost from a series of weekend executive actions addressing the economic fallout from the coronavirus before the limited impact of the measures comes into focus.
Some GOP strategists warned that any gains from the push, which began within minutes of Trump's moves on Saturday, were likely to be short-lived — and could pose more political risk than reward, if voters don’t see a direct benefit following the president’s promise of relief.
“It’s too real and present in people’s lives to paper over with talking points or promises,” said Brendan Buck, a Republican communications strategist who served as a top adviser to former Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. “If these executive orders don’t really solve the economic crisis, and I doubt they will, then it will only end up hurting him in the long run.”
After the White House failed to strike a deal with Democrats in Congress following several weeks of talks, Trump signed four executive actions Saturday that he maintained would provide coronavirus economic relief: an executive order and three memoranda to defer student loan payments and some payroll taxes through the end of the year; discourage evictions; and provide enhanced unemployment benefits if states agree to contribute money to the program.
By that afternoon, Trump’s campaign was plugging them hard on social media and across the airwaves, with surrogates painting the president as taking real action while trying to link former Vice President Joe Biden to Democrats in Congress who haven’t been able to reach a deal with the White House.
“Congress failed to act and Joe Biden’s allies prevented people from getting their unemployment benefits extended,” said Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh. “They are using people’s economic difficulties as a political weapon.”
On Monday, the president sought to attribute gains in the stock market earlier in the day to his executive actions, making sure to return to the point even after having been briefly evacuated from the White House briefing room because of a nearby shooting.
"So I was telling you that the Dow Jones and the S&P 500 are now 50 percent above the March level," Trump said after returning to the podium in the White House briefing room and resuming his prepared remarks.
He added that he was looking to cut capital gains taxes and income taxes for the middle class — moves that would also require action by Congress.
But just how much benefit affected workers eventually see from the president's weekend actions will depend on what states, landlords and employers choose to do — giving Trump and his allies a narrow window to try to get a messaging win before that limited impact becomes apparent.
On the payroll tax, for instance, many employers aren't expected to make a change to worker's withholdings, because the same amount of money will still be due by the end of the year. Payroll taxes are earmarked to pay for Social Security and Medicare.
"It is far from clear that the payroll tax holiday will achieve its intended objective of, as the president said, 'save American jobs and provide relief to the American workers,’” Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate.com, said in a statement. “First, the action is a deferral of these taxes, not an elimination of them. So, the bill is still due, it just isn’t due in the short-term. Let’s remember it is the unemployed who need help, not so much Americans who are still working and who’d get the benefit.”
Trump has said if he wins re-election, he would continue the extension on the tax cut, though he did not say how — or what he would do to offset any potential impact on Social Security funding.
On evictions, the president's order instructed some federal agencies to “consider” whether an extension of the temporary ban might be needed to help combat the spread of the coronavirus, and called on other departments to look for available federal funding that could possibly be used to aid anyone, renter or homeowner, struggling to pay for housing because of conditions created by the pandemic.
But there was nothing in the measure that would stop landlords from taking action against delinquent tenants — now, or in the future. And the directive merely asks agencies to decide whether an evictions ban is necessary and whether aid to tenants might be available, without directing them as to what conclusion to reach, or how quickly they should reach them.
Even the lone move involving more concrete action remained surrounded by question marks: It's unclear how states, already struggling financially as a result of the coronavirus, would be able to meet their requirement to pay a quarter of the $400 a week in extra unemployment benefits the measure calls on them to provide.
"There is no money sitting in the piggy bank of the previous CARES Act to be reprioritized or reconstituted for this purpose," said California Gov. Gavin Newsom. "Simply, it does not exist." He said paying 25 percent of unemployment benefits would cost California an estimated $700 million a week.
On Monday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany sought to shift the blame for any limited benefits of the executive actions onto Democrats and state officials, saying, for example, that any delay in distribution of the $400 a week unemployment checks would be the fault of states who have to apply for the federal funds.
“This president stood up for the American worker at a time when Democrats refused to do so,” she told reporters.
Trump has been looking to frame the executive actions as both a way to deliver benefits to those who need them and a method of forcing opponents to bend on their negotiating positions, telling reporters Sunday that he had already heard from Democrats about restarting the currently failed aid talks. On Monday, Trump suggested House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., were looking to meet in the wake of his actions, though both had already been in talks on a deal with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows for several weeks.
“So now Schumer and Pelosi want to meet to make a deal. Amazing how it all works, isn’t it,” Trump tweeted Monday. “Where have they been for the last 4 weeks when they were 'hardliners,' and only wanted BAILOUT MONEY for Democrat run states and cities that are failing badly? They know my phone number!”
But that claim could have limited long-term utility as well: As of Monday afternoon, there had actually been no contact between the administration and Pelosi or Schumer on restarting talks, according to two senior Democratic aides.
The best-case scenario for Trump, said Buck, could be if Democrats were to reach a deal on a bill that can pass both chambers and that he was willing to sign — giving the president the chance to claim he was able pressure them into an agreement. If not, he said, blaming Democrats may be a hard sell come Election Day.
“This election is going to be a referendum on his job performance and his ability to actually solve this crisis,” Buck said. “That means he needs real solutions.”