Top Republican Party and Trump administration officials are growing convinced that there is no immediate need for another stimulus package to ease the economic damage caused by the coronavirus, reasoning that if already poor conditions worsen they can always pass a measure closer to Election Day, with all the political benefits that may entail.
The calls to pump the brakes on further congressional economic intervention comes at a time when 33 million people have filed for unemployment benefits, the economy is projected to shrink at historic levels, the Federal Reserve has warned lawmakers that more help may be needed, and the recorded U.S. body count from the virus nears 100,000.
But inside the White House and at the top ranks of GOP leadership, there is little fear that inaction carries much risk. Top aides believe that enough money is left to spend from the nearly $3 trillion already allocated and that a shift is beginning to occur among the majority of voters, including virtually all of their base, against the idea of more federal aid.
Beyond that, there is a sense that they have a safety valve if need be: If President Donald Trump finds himself in a bind, Democrats will still go along with more spending later in the summer or early in the fall, even if it’s shortly before the presidential election, according to sources in the administration and on Capitol Hill familiar with the calculus.
“You might want to make sure you have not shot your whole wad now,” said Tom Davis, a former GOP congressman from Virginia. “You may want to have something ready to go in September. It’s an election year… The long term [in this cycle] is ’til November.”
On Tuesday, Trump reportedly urged Republican lawmakers to take it slow on any future economic recovery bill. And Kevin Hassett, his senior economic adviser, told MSNBC: “If you look at the real-time data that we track, we’re seeing a lot of hopeful signs.”
But not everyone within Trump land is convinced that they’ve managed to find some form of an economic and political equilibrium. Industry allies with massive political clout have been angling for further bailouts of their own. And in some quarters, there is fear that the president’s standing on this key electoral issue is wading into dangerous territory and that he would be wise to embrace big-spending economic populism, including such ideas as a prepaid debit “TRUMP CARD” that would be sent to millions of Americans, as the president fights for re-election against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Eric Bolling, a Sinclair Broadcasting host and friend of the Trump family, told The Daily Beast that he personally briefed the president on his economic response plan during a March phone call, which included discussion of “TRUMP”-emblazoned cards.
“I explained the basis of the plan is a prepaid debit card given to each U.S. household [that] must have a use-it-or-lose-it date to ensure the funds would be a direct injection of bottom-up demand into the economy,” Bolling said.
He added that the president said he “liked the idea” before inviting his son-in-law and top aide, Jared Kushner, into the Oval Office and asking Bolling to brief Kushner as well. “They both liked the idea,” the Sinclair TV host said. “Toward the end [of our call], I added they might call this card ‘The Trump Card’ for obvious branding reasons.”
At a Tuesday afternoon event with Trump, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin brandished a debit card that he said the Treasury Department could use to make direct payments to certain eligible citizens during the coronavirus crisis. Mnuchin added that the president’s signature was on the debit card, with Trump expressing his delight at the branded item.
Other media figures and outside voices have pushed the president to keep up the stimulative measures as well. Mark Cuban, the Shark Tank reality TV star and Dallas Mavericks owner who is on the president’s “Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups” council, said he’s been advocating for a federal jobs program that “trains and hires millions” for a COVID-19 tracking and tracing program. Such an idea has heavy Democratic and labor support, and the billionaire Mavericks owner said in an email that he sent a proposal “to my liaison” at the White House. Cuban conceded, though, that so far the “only thing they have pushed forward is adding a link to an organization I’ve worked with” to a CDC webpage.
Those outside advisers clamoring for bolder, bigger spending face an uphill battle in convincing Trump to act. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said he does not feel a great sense of urgency to pass an economic measure. And days after House Democrats moved a massive $3 trillion package—one-third of which went to state and local governments, and $200 billion of which would go to essential worker hazard pay—House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) indicated he didn’t see a compromise emerging off of the Hill anytime soon.
“I don’t see the need right now,” McCarthy said of another package.
Those close to the administration also say they don’t sense acute pressure from the public to continue to inject the huge sums of money that have already gone out in the form of direct assistance, unemployment benefits, small business loans, and industry bailouts—the latter of which have gone largely unspent.
“People are no longer panicked,” said former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) a close administration ally and an official Trump surrogate. “I would have thought people would’ve been raising hell, but some are making more money on unemployment, so there’s not a lot of screaming to get things reopened.”
Asked, for instance, about Cuban’s proposal to create a national jobs program through a federal contact-tracing initiative, Kingston summed up the feeling of the more conservative faction in Trump land: “Hell frigging no.” Stephen Moore, a Heritage Foundation economist who advises Trump and other administration brass, was equally dismissive.
“I think that’s a really bad idea. First of all, where are you gonna get the money?… We want the private sector to hire people, not the federal government,” he said on Monday. “No, I do not support that, and I don’t know if anyone in the [Trump administration] would either. We want the government to spend less money, not more money.”
But Trump himself is the wild card in any question about future economic stimulative measures, with his penchant for changing his position dependent on what cable news program he most recently watched and what individual he most recently called. In recent months, The Daily Beast has spoken with various sources, inside and outside of the White House, who have advised the president on different economic or coronavirus-related policy proposals. Often, people pitching Trump on different plans will relay accounts of the president privately expressing similar levels of enthusiasm for their ideas while trash-talking other proposals he’d just recently praised to someone else.
On Tuesday, Trump reportedly dismissed continuing one of the key planks of the earlier economic measures—extended unemployment benefits—during a luncheon with Senate Republicans. And Hill aides say those same Republicans are generally skittish on pursuing a new economic package, unless it emphasizes a range of conservative priorities, from payroll tax cuts to limiting legal liabilities for businesses that reopen during the pandemic.
Polling indicates that the president’s standing on the economy has not yet hit its nadir after a persistent drop since the coronavirus pandemic first began to spread. Indeed, for the first time in its daily tracking survey, the progressive polling firm Navigator had disapproval of Trump’s handling of the economy at 50 percent on Tuesday morning (up from 43 percent in late March).
But other Republicans believe that the winds of public opinion are shifting and that the party is wise to get on the right side of what they see as an emerging movement against the notion that the government should be heavily involved in propping up the economy.
“I think they see a counter-reaction coming—blowback against the money spent thus far,” said Michael Steel, a former top spokesman for former House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), “and how it was spent, and they genuinely want to see what’s working before spending more.”