The president who pitched himself to voters as the consummate negotiator and ultimate dealmaker has repeatedly found his strategies flummoxed by the complexities and pressures of Washington lawmaking. In response, he has frequently relied on showmanship and pageantry to try to turn negotiating failures into victories.
“We’re going to be signing some bills in a little while that are going to be very important, and will take care of, pretty much, this entire situation,” Trump said Saturday from his club’s grand ballroom, surrounded by presidential seals, American flags and news cameras.
He was greeted with raucous applause by dozens of supporters as he posed for pictures in a simulation of a White House signing ceremony after major legislation is passed.
But the four documents the president signed Saturday were neither “bills” nor “acts,” despite his comments referring to them as such, and their effectiveness and legality are already being called into question by Democrats and some Republicans in the Congress he is attempting to bypass.
Trump said the executive actions he signed would provide economic relief to millions of Americans by deferring payroll taxes and provide temporary unemployment benefits by repurposing unspent dollars. But whether that relief will ever reach Americans remains in doubt, as Trump’s unilateral actions face legal and logistical uncertainties.
The president’s inability to reach a deal with Congress on a payroll tax cut or an extension of unemployment benefits underscored his underwhelming record as a presidential negotiator, according to several historians and lawmakers from both parties.
“It’s pretty striking that other than the December 2017 tax law, basically all of the major moves by the Trump administration have been via executive action, even though he had control of Congress for half of the time,” said Daniel Hemel, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School.
Republicans and Democrats rejected Trump’s payroll tax cut proposal, and the president was unable to bring the two sides together on a compromise over extending enhanced unemployment payments after the $600 weekly benefit expired last month.
Instead, Trump signed an executive memorandum that he said would provide $400 in extra benefits for Americans. The measure itself is constitutionally suspect — since Congress has authority under the Constitution to appropriate funds — and also of questionable workability.
Under the measure, states would have to pitch in $100 weekly and set up a new mechanism for delivering the funds. Several governors, including Ohio’s Mike DeWine (R), have said they are not sure if they will be able to participate in the program.
Trump’s executive order on evictions also stops far short of what he promised.
“We don’t want people being evicted,” Trump said Saturday. “And the bill — the act that I’m signing will solve that problem, largely — hopefully, completely.”
But the order does not reinstate the federal eviction moratorium that expired last month. Instead, it orders federal agencies to “consider” whether a temporary halt on evictions was necessary and to identify potential funds to help struggling renters.
Michael Steel, a Republican operative who worked for former House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said Trump was effectively “giving up on the legislative process” and limiting his own ability to achieve more lasting influence.
“If you want to get big enduring substantial change, you have to go through Congress, as torturous as that process may be,” he said, adding: “I worry he’s drinking his own Kool-Aid, and that’s the problem.”
Democrats slammed the executive measures as too limited and accused Trump of failing to grasp the weight of a pandemic that has killed more than 159,000 Americans.
“My constitutional advisers tell me they’re absurdly unconstitutional,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “What the president proposed yesterday at his country club, surrounded by his people that must spend thousands of dollars to join, is something that won’t even work.”
Trump admitted Saturday that reaching a more secure legislative agreement on unemployment compensation should have been “easily” accomplished, but blamed Democrats for intransigence.
“You ever hear the word ‘obstruction?’ They’ve obstructed. Congress has obstructed,” Trump said Saturday when asked if he was setting a new precedent for presidents to change tax and spending policy without legislation. “The Democrats have obstructed people from getting desperately needed money.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended Trump as a “great negotiator,” pointing to previous coronavirus relief bills that passed with bipartisan support.
“President Trump successfully negotiated three iterations of COVID relief legislation, including the landmark CARES Act,” she said in a statement. “From the first drafting of the CARES Act to enactment as law, it took one week. This occurred under split-party control of Congress.”
While Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) referred to the president’s actions as “unconstitutional slop,” Trump received support from some Republican allies who praised him for taking action amid a congressional logjam. Some of the GOP leaders who praised the president’s action previously attacked President Obama for using executive action to bypass Congress.
“Look, as the president has said, democracy is hard,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said after Obama proposed executive action on immigration in 2014. “Imposing his will unilaterally may seem tempting. It may serve him politically in the short term. But he knows it will make an already broken system even more broken.”
On Saturday, McConnell praised Trump’s use of executive authority, saying in a statement that the end run around Congress was justified because Democrats were being stubborn.
But with less than three months to go before a presidential election, it’s unclear if voters will agree with Trump’s partisan and unilateral approach to problem-solving. The pandemic raging across the country and ravaging the nation’s economy is the kind of national challenge that previous presidents have used to rally lawmakers and the public to unify.
In the past, Americans have rewarded presidents who rise to confront national tragedies with steady leadership, creative ideas and political skills to bring two opposing sides to agreement.
Trump has largely been absent from that process, and his poll numbers have fallen as the virus’s death toll has soared.
Trump hasn’t spoken at length to Pelosi since October, and the relationship between the two powerful figures has deteriorated in the wake of the House’s vote to impeach the president last year.
Trump’s signing ceremony Saturday followed a pattern that has become well established during his first term. He has regularly pivoted to signing executive orders with great fanfare after failing to negotiate legislative deals that would have broader and more long-lasting impact. He often claims that his unilateral approach is actually better than the legislation he originally sought unsuccessfully.
Unable to reach an agreement with Congress last year over funding for his border wall, Trump ended a 35-day partial government shutdown by announcing that he would use executive action to repurpose money for the project.
After failing in 2017 to pass a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, Trump instead promised to “use the power of the pen” to provide alternative health care plans, which he has yet to do. On Friday, he claimed he would again address health care by signing an executive order requiring health insurers to cover preexisting conditions, something that is already required under the Affordable Care Act signed into law by Obama.
Trump has repeatedly promised legislation to address gun violence after mass shootings, but ultimately settled for an executive ban on bump stocks after struggling to reach a bipartisan compromise on background checks or other changes supported by members of both parties.
After Congress and the White House failed to come up with a legislative package to address police misconduct in the wake of national protests over racial injustice this summer, Trump used a Rose Garden ceremony to sign an executive order that left both parties divided.
Trump’s repeated use of executive orders stands as a “devastating rebuke” of his central 2016 campaign message, said Jennifer Palmieri, Hillary Clinton’s communications director during the 2016 race.
“It’s an admission that Trump has failed as a dealmaker, which in 2016 was his biggest selling point for how he was going to fix the economy and be effective with Congress,” she said.
As a candidate in 2016, Trump repeatedly criticized Obama for signing executive orders and said that he was a businessman with the skills to cut through congressional gridlock.
“We have a president that can’t get anything done so he just keeps signing executive orders all over the place,” Trump said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” in January 2016, adding that, he preferred “the old fashioned way, get everybody into a room and get something people agree on.”
DeWine, who served in Congress for two decades before becoming Ohio’s governor, said that while he appreciated Trump’s push to get something done unilaterally, he preferred congressional action to the “blunt instrument” of executive action.
“What really needs to happen is Congress needs to get back in, and negotiate,” he told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “We need to look at this, as if we are at war. And throughout our history when we’ve had a foreign invader, we pull together Democrats and Republicans.”
But as the election looms, there’s little evidence that both sides will come together. Instead, the White House is preparing for the courts to have the final say.
In the end, Trump’s legacy may include the further erosion of the system of checks and balances envisioned under the Constitution, said Barbara A. Perry, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
“The Founders must be spinning on their marble pedestals — and not from protesters attempting to topple them,” she said in an email. “The trend toward unilateral executive orders, to avoid a polarized and stymied Congress, preceded President Trump, but he has accelerated it to the point of obliterating our bedrock constitutional principle of checking autocratic power.”