As Donald Trump prepared to head to his Florida resort for the holidays, he gave Congress two unwelcome Christmas gifts, raising fears of a government shutdown and casting doubt on a $ 900 billion relief package for Americans suffering the economic fallout from the pandemic.
Just before boarding his Marine One helicopter to leave the White House on Wednesday, Mr. Trump vetoed a $ 740 billion bill who finances everything from weapons to military pay. The veto came less than 24 hours later rejected a stimulus bill that his team had helped work with Democrats and Republicans.
In addition to throwing a wrench into legislative work on Capitol Hill, Mr. Trump on Wednesday released a series of controversial pardons, including Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager. This followed another round of pardons Tuesday, including four men who killed unarmed Iraqi civilians while working for Blackwater, a security company founded by Erik Prince whose sister Betsy DeVos is Mr. Trump’s education secretary.
After four years of relentless chaos and a election loss to Joe Biden whom he refuses to accept, Washington is plagued by speculation that Mr. Trump will use his last few weeks in power to add more turmoil to US politics. And so far the president seems happy to oblige.
In recent days, Mr. Trump has taken photos of Republicans on Twitter, while meeting allies who are propelling conspiracy theories on voter fraud and suggesting that he impose martial law and run the election again.
On Tuesday, Mr. Trump targeted John Thune, a Republican senator, who said his efforts to contest the election were crumbling like a “hound dog.” He described the lawmaker as a “Rino” – Republican in name only – who was “Mitch’s boy,” in an insult to Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate. Earlier this week, the White House sent Republicans a graphic that took credit for helping Mr McConnell retain his seat in the Kentucky Senate in the November election, even though there was no no danger.
Some critics have accused Mr. Trump of trying to provoke unrest to upset his opponents, while others have suggested the president launch a long tantrum over his failure to win re-election.
“Every day it feels like the situation is getting worse. It’s not just incompetence, it looks like meanness, ”said Mieke Eoyang, a former Democratic congressional assistant. “There is no American analog as to the scope of what it does. . . I have never seen this level of malice in the US government.
Some critics have described Mr. Trump as an irritable child throwing his toys out of his pram. “He just wants to break stuff on his way out,” tweeted George Conway, a Republican lawyer and persistent critic of the president whose wife, Kellyanne Conway, recently served as Mr. Trump’s White House assistant.
Democrats and Republicans have said they have both the intention and the votes necessary to override Mr. Trump’s objection to the defense bill, which would mark the first time Congress has would cancel on a veto.
But his attack on the $ 900 billion relief bill – and the prospect of it being able to veto again – presents a more complicated challenge for lawmakers. The stimulus package was combined with a $ 1.4 billion omnibus bill to fund the government. Unless Congress passes the measure – or a temporary spending bill – by midnight Monday, the government will be strapped for funding.
While Congress has had many year-end battles over government funding under successive presidents, Mr. Trump has created an unprecedented crisis given the other challenges the government faces. As Mr. Biden prepares to take office on January 20, the United States faces a coronavirus cases where nearly 3,000 people die every day.
The government is also working to determine the damage caused by a huge and continuous cyber attack that US officials blamed on Russia. Meanwhile, millions of Americans remain out of work and rely on some level of help from the federal government.
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“We had the government shutdowns in 1995 and the fiscal cliff in 2012 – both taking place over the holidays where everyone just wants to go home,” said Tony Fratto, a former Republican treasury official.
“This one is different in that Trump is trying to smash a hard-to-build bill, and we are also at the confluence of crises – health, economic and cyber crises. We need seriousness more than ever, but we have more games. “
In denouncing the relief bill on Tuesday, Mr. Trump called it a “shame” and urged lawmakers to increase stimulus payment checks to American adults from the $ 600 that had been agreed upon after months of negotiation at $ 2,000 – a figure Democrats had long defended but was rejected by Republicans.
“I’ve been pushing for $ 2,000 stimulus checks for the past six months, so I applaud Trump’s sudden support,” said Brendan Boyle, a Democratic congressman. “We will try to pass it in the House by ‘unanimous consent’ on Thursday. The question is: will House Republicans oppose? “
Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the Democratic House of Representatives, plans to try to pass a measure raising the figure to $ 2,000 by “unanimous consent”, but that requires the support of all Republicans. If it fails and Mr. Trump does not change course, lawmakers will have to reopen negotiations or bet they have the votes to prevail over Mr. Trump if he issues a formal veto.
Although the House has created procedures to allow many members to vote remotely, the Senate still requires in-person voting, which means members may have to return to Washington just after Christmas Day.
Mr. Trump’s intervention on the relief bill also created a big headache for Republicans who had consistently opposed providing more money. Democrats are already using Mr. Trump’s call for larger payouts to help their candidates in two main Senate second-round races in Georgia in January.
If the Democrats oust the two Republican incumbents, the Senate will be divided 50 to 50, which would give effective control to Mr. Biden’s party, because Kamala Harris, his new vice president, would vote decisively.
In the last few weeks of his presidency, Washington is also bracing for other possible actions that could cause greater volatility. After leaving the White House for his seaside resort of Mar-a-Lago on Wednesday, Mr Trump tweeted a warning to Iran not to test US resolve in its final weeks in office.
“Some friendly health advice to Iran: If an American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Reflect.”
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