If Trump’s intentions weren’t clear, just listen to his lawyer!

On Saturday, August 8, Donald Trump signed four new executive orders (actually, three separate memoranda and one order) by which he purports to solve the Congressional deadlock on extending COVID-19-related relief. He claims he can do so by, unilaterally, providing executive authority for extended supplementary unemployment payments, an eviction moratorium, a further suspension of student loan payments and, while he is at it, a suspension of the payroll tax for certain taxpayers.

Trump asserts that, as president, he has the authority to do these things simply through the power of the Sharpie. But these orders are (1) evil, and (2) little more than political theater designed to shore up his support in the upcoming election. In other words, it’s all another big lie, dressed up in the pomp and circumstance of a presidential signing ceremony.

Political Theater

Let’s start with my second contention. I say that this is all nothing but political theater because Trump doesn’t actually have the authority to do what he is pretending to do.

Under the U.S. Constitution, only the House of Representatives has the power to tax and spend money for the federal government.  (We know the president hasn’t read the Constitution, but you should. See Article I, Section 7, Clause 1: “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with amendments as on other Bills.”) Similarly, the president is not permitted to draw money from the Treasury unless Congress has specifically passed a law allowing him to do so for a specific purpose. (See Article I, Section 9, Clause 7, “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.”)

The House of Representatives actually has tried to appropriate funds that would, among other things, extend the $600 supplemental unemployment payment. Way back in May (seems like a lifetime ago), the House passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which would have provided billions of dollars in COVID-19 relief, but Mitch McConnell has not allowed the Senate to consider it, much less to vote on it.

This gave Trump the opportunity to swoop in and appear to show that—in the infamous words he uttered in his Republican nomination acceptance speech in July 2016—“I alone can fix it.” Moreover, in doing so he and the Republicans are trying to convince the public that executive action was needed because “Congress” didn’t act to help suffering Americans, when in fact the Democratically-controlled House did act, while the Republican-controlled Senate decided to go on vacation.

One of the other memos extends the deferment of student loan payments through December 31, which is a good thing, as far as it goes (the CARES Act deferment would have expired on September 30). As for evictions, Trump issued an executive order which basically says, yeah, the relevant federal agencies should see what they can do to help. Which is probably nothing.

Why Are These Actions Evil?

So how does Trump say he will pay for all these things? This is where the evil comes in.

Trump proposes to use his emergency powers to divert $70 billion from the Department of Homeland Security’s Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) to provide unemployed workers with $300 per week on top of what they receive from the state in which they live. But for expenditures from the DRF, states are required by law to contribute 25%, so he is depending on already cash-strapped states to find that money. States also have to provide an additional $100 per week from the money they already received pursuant to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, assuming it has not been spent already. (Note that even in the unlikely event all of these stars were to align, the total would only be $400, as opposed to the $600 per week the unemployed received under the CARES Act.)

Whether this will actually result in any additional payments to the unemployed is an open question. Many states, which are losing tax revenues and are precluded by law from running deficits like the federal government can, may simply be unable to come up with the money. (Or perhaps this is the Senate’s evil plan, since McConnell has floated the idea of allowing states to file for bankruptcy, presumably because he assumes this would affect mostly blue states.)

Trump is also directing the Secretary of the Treasury to defer payroll taxes as of September 1 on taxpayers making less than $104,000 per year. Though not stated explicitly in the memo, this is clearly meant to put more money in the pockets of those lucky enough to have jobs. (To make this clear: this does nothing for the more than 50 million Americans who have filed for unemployment benefits since March.) The Secretary is also ordered to “explore avenues, including legislation, to eliminate the obligation to pay the taxes deferred pursuant to the implementation of this memorandum.” In other words, though payroll taxes are only being “deferred” for now, the medium-term plan is to eliminate the requirement that such deferred taxes ever be paid. (See below for the long-term plan.)

Why are these presidential acts evil? First, because they set the stage for what Trump hopes to do in his second term.* One major goal is to get rid of the payroll tax altogether. Remember, the Social Security system is funded by the payroll tax! Those are your tax dollars (plus tax payments from employers) that are supposedly being put away for future retirement. It has long been a Republican goal to get rid of Social Security. This is a step toward achieving that long-term plan. Moreover, Medicare is partially funded by payroll taxes as well. Would you like to have reasonably affordable health insurance once you’re retired? Then you might want Medicare to survive a few more years.

This tweet has it just about right.

I would also contend that diverting disaster funding is foolhardy, especially during hurricane season in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

The real danger—the real evil—lies precisely in the political theater surrounding these “orders.” The White House surely knows that all of these directives will be challenged in the courts. As such, they are unlikely to have any practical impact. The real impact, to my mind, is the fact that Trump issued these orders at all. By doing so, he is going well beyond the “unitary executive” theory so beloved by Attorney General William Barr, under which the president has expansive powers to control all aspects of the Executive Branch. Here, he is also seeking to extend his power over a key function of the legislative branch, which is to make laws deciding how our tax dollars are to be spent. This is a dangerous, perhaps unprecedented, power grab. Don’t forget: Trump has (falsely) said that the Constitution gives him “the right to do whatever I want”.

If you read the actual documents, they are replete with rhetoric about how the virus that is the cause of all this trouble began in China (which is relevant to … what, exactly?), and how the Trump administration has been such a raging success in every way. But they do little to accomplish the goals Trump claims to be solving with the flick of a pen. All they do is take us one step further down the road of autocracy.

As always, I recommend the informative daily newsletter by historian Heather Cox Richardson for more depth and detail (available on Facebook, on or via email subscription). She wrote about these presidential orders in her newsletter of August 8, 2020.


* But please, dear god—no, I should say “dear voters”—don’t let Trump win a second term!

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Heather Long, “Here’s what’s actually in Trump’s four executive orders,” Washington Post (Aug. 9, 2020).

Heather Cox Richardson, “Trump to the Rescue: Executive Orders Galore,” Moyers on Democracy (Aug. 9, 2020).