Jeb Bush, even as a member of a political dynasty distinguished for its verbal ineptitude, is not an eloquent man. Yet one comment he made in 2015 during his run for the presidency is worth preserving: He referred to Donald Trump as a “chaos candidate” who is likely to become a “chaos president.” Trump has indeed governed in a tumultuous fashion—and with a month left to go, his administration is only becoming more shambolic.
On Tuesday, a spate of stories broke underscoring the growing bedlam in the White House. Barbara Starr, Pentagon reporter for CNN, reported, “With just some 30 days to go before the US military watches its current commander in chief leave office, there is growing anxiety in the ranks about what Trump might do in these remaining days. Will the President order some unexpected military action, such as a strike on Iran, or will he somehow draw the military into his efforts to overthrow the election results?”
That same day, Trump used his pardon power on behalf of his political cronies, convicted Republican politicians, and war criminals. As The New York Times reported, “In an audacious pre-Christmas round of pardons, President Trump granted clemency on Tuesday to two people who pleaded guilty in the special counsel’s Russia inquiry, four Blackwater guards convicted in connection with the killing of Iraqi civilians and three corrupt former Republican members of Congress.”
Finally, Trump topped off the day by denouncing the stimulus bill he had already agreed to as a “disgrace.” He strongly implied that he might veto the bill. “It’s called the Covid relief bill, but it has almost nothing to do with Covid,” Trump said in a video. “I am asking Congress to amend this bill and increase the ridiculously low $600 to $2,000.”
Ironically, Trump’s call for a larger check is the position Democrats have taken for many months. While Trump’s apparent attempt to scuttle the existing deal threatens to throw the government into chaos, it also opens the opportunity for Democrats to either get a much better stimulus deal or at the very least gain a political advantage over the Republicans. With two crucial senatorial races in Georgia just two weeks away that will determine which party has a majority in the Senate, Democrats have a chance to paint Republican candidates as being stingier than their own party’s standard-bearer.
On CNN, Georgia Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff was quick to seize on Trump’s remarks. “President Trump is as ever erratic and all over the place but on this point tonight, he’s right. $600 is a joke. They should send $2000 checks to the American people right now because people are hurting.” Ossoff went on to needle his opponent David Perdue for opposing an earlier round of stimulus checks. Fellow Democrat Raphael Warnock has made a similar argument against his opponent Kelly Loeffler.
In a cagey move, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has decided to take Trump’s rhetoric at face value to force him to live up to it. “Republicans repeatedly refused to say what amount the President wanted for direct checks,” Pelosi tweeted. “At last, the President has agreed to $2,000—Democrats are ready to bring this to the Floor this week by unanimous consent. Let’s do it!”
Why would Trump pull a turnaround on stimulus funding that hurts the Republicans? It’s partially of a pattern, as Ossoff suggests, with Trump’s long-standing disarray.
But Trump has also become unmoored for a new reason: He no longer needs a close alliance with congressional Republicans. During his presidency, Trump kept to a de facto deal with GOP leaders where he let them micromanage issues like tax cuts and court appointments, in exchange for Trump and his administration’s being shielded from oversight and investigation.
But with Trump as a lame-duck president, this deal is no longer in Trump’s benefit. Trump might well resent the fact that GOP leaders like Mitch McConnell are not supporting efforts to overturn the election results. On the stimulus, Trump’s own long-term interests no longer align with the GOP’s. If he ran for president again in 2024, it would help if he could say that he tried to give a generous stimulus but was thwarted by Congress.
MSNBC host Chris Hayes has speculated along this line:
The reason, the number one reason, there wasn’t a deal sooner, with a higher price tag, was that Trump *completely* ignored the entirety of the negotiations. It was always clear he could get a deal at a number closer to Pelosi’s if he actually cared and wanted to lean on Senate R’s. But he didn’t! Because he didn’t care. And post-election he has spent literally all of his political capital attempting to overturn American democracy. On that task he has been quite focused! There’s no official too low-level to lobby! So why did he just decide to suddenly pay attention? I think the Occam’s razor is *to screw McConnell*. He’s pissed that McConnell acknowledged Biden’s victory and this is his revenge. The most stalwart opposition to $2000 checks is McConnell’s own caucus. This blows up McConnell’s deal and screws Loeffler and Purdue who’ve now been wrong footed. Pelosi is right to call the bluff. Push as far as you can and force a showdown between Trump and McConnell because ultimately that’s big battle that has to happen before this era ends.
Pelosi’s play is the right one and could pay off for the Democrats in a variety of ways. If Trump refuses the offer, his own bad management and dishonesty will be highlighted. If Republicans scuttle the deal, that’ll hurt them in Georgia and future elections. If Trump and the Senate GOP do go along, then there will be a much bigger stimulus.
The danger is that a robust new stimulus will be an achievement Trump can run on in 2024. But even in that eventuality, driving a wedge between Trump and congressional Republicans offers enough immediate advantages to be worth the risk. As the Bible says, sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Pelosi should push for a strong deal now.