Over the Christmas weekend, he was the only man with the power to forestall a government shutdown on Tuesday, restore jobless benefits to millions of laid-off Americans and prevent further economic calamity in the days ahead.
But his Sunday night signature was too late to prevent unemployment aid from lapsing.
The delay in signing the package, only to approve it after damage was done, is the latest example of Trump’s increasingly erratic behavior in the waning days of his term.
The delay — prompted by Trump’s late-in-the-game dissatisfaction with the size of direct payment checks to Americans, his irritation at Senate Republican leaders and a showman’s penchant for keeping people guessing — also pushed the government within 30 hours of shutting down.
All weekend, instead of explaining himself, Trump played coy, focused mostly on dead-end efforts to challenge his election loss rather than taking a step that would ease the nation’s hardships.
He remained out of public view in Florida, traveling back and forth to his namesake golf course without revealing his intentions. His top lieutenants, who might have wrung some clarity out of their truculent boss, were on their own holiday getaways: Vice President Mike Pence at the ski slopes in Vail and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin near the beaches of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Even in the lead-up to signing the bill, Trump seemed focused more on creating suspense than on appeasing Americans’ worries.
Seeming to realize the mess he’d created, Trump’s statement afterward appeared face-saving, insisting that one of his trade-offs for signing the bill was lawmakers agreeing to “focus strongly on the very substantial voter fraud which took place in the November 3 Presidential election” — a promise Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made no mention of in his own statement praising Trump’s decision to sign the legislation. There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the election that Trump lost to President-elect Joe Biden.
As he departs office, Trump is intent on wielding — or, in this case, withholding — his executive authority in ways that punish his rivals, distract from his loss and ensure he remains the center of attention even as a lame duck.
He has been more unpredictable than at any point in his presidency, and aides on Sunday told CNN even as they pressed Trump to approve the relief measure, they couldn’t say for certain how he would proceed.
“To play this old switcheroo game…I don’t get the point,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, on CNN’s “State of the Union” hours before Trump signed the bill. “I don’t understand what’s being done, why, unless it’s just to create chaos and show power and be upset because you lost the election.”
Trump’s waffling on the bill
A week ago, the prospect of a government shutdown and lapsing jobless benefits in the time between Christmas and New Years seemed far-off. Both chambers of Congress passed the package overwhelmingly and the White House was clear that Trump would sign it. Lawmakers left town.
But no one, it seemed, actually checked with Trump — or if they did, he wasn’t paying close enough attention to realize what exactly he was signing onto. Even after Trump released a video saying the direct payment checks in the bill were too low and complaining about the bevy of unrelated spending (which was actually included in the attached government funding mechanism), no one seemed to be able to get an answer on how he intended to proceed.
“He should have weighed in eight months ago…or at least eight days ago, and not after they finally reached agreement,” Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican from Maryland and frequent Trump critic, said on “State of the Union” on Sunday.
On Christmas Eve, staff at Mar-a-Lago made preparations for Trump to sign the package, setting up a small table and arranging pens in one of the club’s ballrooms. But the plan was scrapped at the last minute, two sources with knowledge of the circumstances told CNN.
On Sunday, as he was preparing to leave for dinner at his nearby golf course, Trump offered a tease of his coming move, but still left even his circle of advisers in the dark about his intentions.
“Good news on Covid Relief Bill. Information to follow!” he wrote.
Finally, it emerged that Trump had indeed signed the measure after consulting with Republican leaders. In his…