A peculiar thing is happening in Washington, D.C., right now.
Congressional Democrats are demanding that President Donald Trump spend trillions of dollars to boost the economy, stabilize states, and shore up schools, just as the November elections are coming into focus. But rather than take the money, Trump has said no.
More remarkable, he’s barely been involved in the discussions.
With his presidency at stake, Trump had checked out of talks around the most important piece of legislation still on the docket. He decamped to his golf resort in New Jersey for a long weekend as congressional leaders and top administration officials stood at an impasse over a deal on a COVID-related stimulus package that will end up costing well north of $1 trillion, if it passes at all. Aides insist that he’s keeping tabs and working the phones. But no one in Congress senses his presence. And few are actually yearning for it.
Would it be helpful for him to be more involved, The Daily Beast asked one top Senate GOP aide. “No,” the aide replied, without skipping a beat. “No.”
On Friday night, President Trump told reporters and supporters gathered at his golf club that if “people in Congress” did not give him what he and Republicans wanted, he would issue executive orders to advance his policy interests by the end of the week. He skimmed his prepared remarks, dinging Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi for trying to get “radical left-wing policies” into coronavirus-relief legislation, before quickly moving on to other matters. Asked if he was concerned about the legality of doing so, he responded, “not at all,” but that he and his administration might “get sued” over it regardless.
When asked about his involvement, or lack thereof, in ongoing negotiations, Trump replied, “my people… they’re constantly on the phone with me” and claimed that he’s “totally” involved with the talks.
Except, that’s not the case. And as evidenced by the fact that he was asked about his absence from the talks, it is carrying clear peril.
Trump is acutely aware that his political fortunes depend on the state of the economy and has shown no reservation about spending massive sums of money to keep things stable. But with federal assistance to the unemployed and small businesses in jeopardy, his party is divided, save in their rejection of Democrats’ demands that more money be spent over a longer period of time.
The risks are reputational too. The image of Trump as the prototype dealmaker—unique in his ability to levy threats and slap a few backs—may end up appearing for more and more voters to be what his critics have long alleged: a myth.
For Trump’s allies, his absence from the talks is a negotiating ploy itself, one that is bolstered by his ability to take executive action—and look as if he’s delivering when Congress is not—should the talks fail. The president may instinctually favor a major stimulus. But, they argue, there is no need for that now—with previous COVID-related relief money still unspent—and, hence, no rush to bend to Democratic demands.
“Whenever politicians are either panicked or drunk, they always make the wrong choices. And when they were panicked and drunk in March of this year when the pandemic hit, they… had to do something!” said Art Laffer, a longtime conservative economist who informally advises Trump and has cautioned him and his administration against stimulus spending since the dawn of the coronavirus crisis. “That’s exactly what happened with Trump and everyone else in March. And they made a huge mistake [with that stimulus bill]... and with respect to redistribution.”
Laffer added, “This time around, they have calmed down.”
By Friday afternoon, talks between Capitol Hill Democrats and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows appeared to have made minimal progress. Roughly a trillion-dollar difference existed between the two sides in terms of acceptable price tag and a host of other sticking points were there as well, from nutritional aid to funds for states.
Two people who had spoken to the president in recent days said it sounded as if he’d basically given up on the negotiations and was looking into executive actions—to, among other things, extend a moratorium on evictions, keep enhanced unemployment benefits in place, and stop collecting payroll taxes—as foregone conclusions.
“I think he’s settled on this as the best option,” one of these sources said.
But those moves are not as enduring or sweeping as congressional action. And they open the president up to attacks that could cause their own electoral problems. Democrats, on Thursday, said they were prepared to charge Trump with putting Social Security at risk with his payroll tax gambit, as the revenue stream from the tax helps fund the entitlement program.
“Yeah,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), “we are going to do that.”
That the situation had gotten to this point was, to a degree, an illustration of how difficult Trump has found operating in Washington to be. The president heads into the election with few major legislative achievements and many spectacular failures: from the inability to repeal and replace Obamacare to overseeing the longest government shutdown in history—a 35-day affair. Trump’s testy relationship and self-obsessed nature with various lawmakers, including ones on his own side of the aisle, has previously resulted in the poisoning of policy negotiations on the Hill. This has led to many prominent Republicans to privately concede that it’s often better for Trump to stay on the sidelines so as to not risk blowing up carefully crafted deals or GOP priorities, or causing additional, undue melodrama.
But Trump’s defenders also argue that it’s a reflection of modern political realities. The days of presidents being successful at wrangling a divided Congress are a relic of the past.
“I think there is a double standard for when it comes to Donald Trump. They were all terrible at it,” said Sam Geduldig, a top Republican lobbyist and former senior aide to John Boehner. “I have not been alive for a good presidential negotiator. I don’t know who this person is.”
And yet, there is something unique to Trump’s shortcomings as a legislative operator. It’s not just that he has largely stopped trying, it’s that he’s done so, often, for the pettiest of reasons: that he doesn’t particularly like his primary negotiating partners.
In the spring of 2019, Trump stormed out of a meeting with Democrats, proclaiming he would not work with them unless they called off investigations into his conduct. Months later, the Democrats returned the favor, storming out of a White House briefing on troop withdrawals from Syria after Trump called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) a “third-rate” politician.
Trump’s animus towards Pelosi is so profound, at this critical juncture, that he has refused to meet with her. And while Pelosi’s lieutenants say she is more than comfortable sitting across the table from the president, none of them see the point, either.
“We lost confidence in our ability to negotiate with Trump several years ago since he was an unreliable negotiator,” said Rep. John Yarmouth (D-KY), the chair of the House Budget Committee. “So we basically have written him off as an honest partner anyway.”
Earlier this summer, a senior Trump administration official said that there continues to be an “effective ban”—though not an official barring—on Pelosi meeting directly with the president and other top officials at the White House despite the severity of the moment. This official told The Daily Beast that President Trump still sees “no point” in dealing one-on-one with Pelosi and that he’s repeatedly said he doesn’t want to give her the satisfaction of another White House meeting, feeling she would use it to leak against him to the press and as an opportunity to performatively stand up to him.
While Trump has found it impossible to negotiate with Democrats, he’s had more success with Republicans. But even those have often been hamfisted episodes that left lawmakers perplexed.
Former Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC), a conservative Trump critic, recalled an awkward run-in he had with the president and White House staff early on in this administration, when he’d been a GOP holdout on an earlier version of the House’s “Trumpcare” legislation.
According to Sanford, then-senior Trump official Mick Mulvaney sat him down and said, “I feel very uncomfortable doing this… and this is going to feel a little bit like a Don Corleone moment.” Then, Mulvaney told Sanford that Trump ordered Mulvaney to “look you square in the eyes and tell you that he really looks forward to defeating you if you vote no on this bill… and he really hopes you will,” the former congressman recounted.
“I’ve never before witnessed a president as insecure as this one,” Sanford continued. “One’s standing with the president isn’t necessarily based upon ideological congruence or long, hard-fought battles over the years on a particular issue. It’s based on, ‘Do you like me or don’t you?’ which are the words of a preadolescent.”
Sanford ended up voting for a subsequent version of the Republican-authored Obamacare repeal legislation, after Trump and his aides helped ensure the death of the earlier incarnation through strongarm tactics. But, targeted by the president, Sanford lost his primary to a Trump-backed candidate who would go on to lose the general election.