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Trump’s Latest Executive Orders Are a Political Stunt

On Saturday evening, the Washington Post published a long article under the headline “The Lost Days of Summer: How Trump Fell Short in Containing the Virus.” To anybody who has been sentient for the past six months, the narrative it presented was alarmingly familiar: “The president has been focused first and foremost on his reelection chances and reacting to the daily or hourly news cycle as opposed to making long-term strategy, with [Mark] Meadows”—the White House chief of staff—“and other senior aides indulging his impulses rather than striving to impose discipline.”

As if to reinforce these points, Trump had held a press conference at his golf course in New Jersey just hours before the article was published. Interrupting his latest weekend on the links, he signed four executive orders related to the coronavirus economy, which he said would extend unemployment benefits, provide American workers with a “payroll tax holiday,” and protect renters who are struggling to meet their payments. Trump and his staff presented the issuance of the orders as a way to break through the deadlock on Capitol Hill, where negotiators from the two major parties are struggling to agree on a new spending bill. The executive orders “will take care of, pretty much, this entire situation,” Trump said.

Even by Trump’s standards, that was a ludicrous claim. Setting aside the legal issue of whether he has the authority to enact the measures he announced, it is clear that they won’t provide a lasting solution to any of the problems that they were supposedly meant to address. Like so many of the unilateral actions that Trump has taken over the past three and a half years, the orders were designed to garner some headlines and give him a short-term political boost. So far, their main substantive impact has been to create confusion among those likely to be affected.

The big human issue at stake in the talks on Capitol Hill is the need for Americans of all regions, races, and income groups to get through a pandemic that they did nothing to bring about. In economic terms, the point of the spending bill is to prevent another downward spiral as cash-strapped households and businesses are forced to slash their spending simultaneously because of the expiration of two key support programs that Congress introduced back in March: a six-hundred-dollar supplement to weekly unemployment benefits, and the Paycheck Protection Program, under which the federal government has provided forgivable loans to more than five million small businesses and not-for-profit organizations. The expanded unemployment benefits lapsed at the end of July, and the final deadline for applications to the P.P.P. program was Saturday.

Trump’s executive orders don’t address the P.P.P. at all, and they only provide for a partial and temporary extension of the supplements to jobless benefits. The White House said that it would divert forty-four billion dollars from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund, which is usually devoted to things like hurricane recovery, and with this money provide a monthly supplement of three hundred dollars to jobless benefits. As part of this proposal, the White House also called on the states, which administer the benefits system, to contribute another hundred dollars to the supplement, making the total amount four hundred dollars. A number of state officials immediately dismissed this proposal as unworkable. (Governor Cuomo said that it was “just an impossibility.”) But, even if the plan could be put into practice, it would still subject about thirty million jobless people to a substantial cut to their incomes. And, according to some estimates, the FEMA money would last only about a month. Then Congress would have to step in again.

The payroll-tax order also demands inspection. Starting on September 1st, it directs the Treasury Department to allow employers to defer payment of the employee portion of the Social Security tax for workers who earn less than four thousand dollars every two weeks. But the deferred taxes will still eventually come due, and they will have to be paid: no White House can unilaterally abrogate tax liabilities that Congress has enacted. So for the order “to have a meaningful effect, employees would need to be confident that Congress would eventually pass a tax cut to forgive the deferred tax liabilities,” an analysis from the economics team at Goldman Sachs noted. “If not, workers—or possibly their employers—would face a substantial tax bill in 2021 and might either voluntarily withhold extra taxes or save the extra pay in order to cover the expected tax bill.”

The third element of the package Trump announced also fell well short of its billing. As part of the CARES Act, Congress introduced a hundred-and-twenty day moratorium on evictions of renters who live in buildings that have a mortgage guaranteed by the federal government. Democrats have called for this moratorium to be expanded to a year and extended to all renters. The Trump executive order doesn’t even extend the existing moratorium, which covers only about a third of renters. It merely directs the Treasury and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to identify funds that could be used to help people who are struggling to meet their rent, and instructs HUD to “promote the ability of renters and homeowners to avoid eviction or foreclosure.”

Taken as a whole, it’s clear that these executive orders wouldn’t provide adequate support for the people they were supposedly designed to help; they also fall woefully short of providing the level of support that the economy needs. Through year’s end, “these policies look likely to provide something like $200bn in fiscal relief,” the analysis by Goldman Sachs said. That’s a fraction of the $1.5 trillion that independent economists have said is the minimum sum necessary to prevent a further downturn.

Trump’s economic advisers know all of this, of course, although that didn’t prevent two of them—Larry Kudlow and Peter Navarro—from going on the Sunday-morning talk shows and defending his actions. Far from being a serious effort to prop up the economy, and to help the tens of millions of Americans whose livelihoods the virus has upended, the executive orders are essentially a political ploy. And the Trump campaign is already trying to exploit it. On Sunday, it sent a fund-raising text message to his supporters: “I signed 4 Exec Orders to help the American People. What did the Swamp do? NOTHING. Show them where YOU stand. Act Now for 5X-MATCH.”



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