by Erica Werner, Jeff Stein and Karoun Demirjian
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said Monday he’s looking at unilaterally taking steps to stop tenant evictions and lower payroll taxes, adding that such moves might be necessary if a new coronavirus relief bill can’t be brokered with congressional Democrats.
“A lot of people are going to be evicted, but I’m going to stop it because I’ll do it myself if I have to,” Trump told reporters at an event at the White House. “I have a lot of powers with respect to executive orders, and we’re looking at that very seriously right now.”
He later said he could act to prevent people from having to go to homeless shelters, where he said they could be at higher risk of catching the coronavirus.
“They are thrown out viciously,” Trump said. “It’s not their fault.”
Similarly, he told reporters he could use an executive order to lower payroll taxes; the idea to lower the taxes has generated little enthusiasm on Capitol Hill.
The White House is scrambling to confront two major problems facing millions of Americans. Enhanced unemployment benefits for about 30 million workers ended last week, and a moratorium on evictions also expired. Trump has identified these issues as his highest priorities in the political talks, though the White House did not do much in the months leading up to the new crisis to map out a plan.
Both of those programs were authorized by Congress this year but were designed to be temporary. The White House engaged with Democrats recently in negotiations to reauthorize the programs, and now White House officials are trying to determine what Trump could do if the talks falter.
John Yoo, a law professor controversial for his legal defense of torture while an attorney in the George W. Bush administration, met with Trump in the Oval Office on Thursday morning. Trump asked him about his June 22 article in National Review that said the Supreme Court’s recent decision on immigration could pave the way for other sweeping unilateral actions by the president, according to Yoo.
“If you can choose not to enforce the immigration laws, here are the other things you could not enforce – such as not collecting taxes because we’re in the middle of this Great Depression,” Yoo said, summarizing the National Review piece. “We talked about the article and what it said, but I don’t want to say anything about what potentially they want to apply it to. They have the right to ask people for advice confidentially.”
Throughout his presidency, Trump has pushed the boundaries on executive power, with steps such as declaring a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border that he said allowed him to redirect Pentagon money to build a wall. His administration also has been aggressive in attempting to “reprogram” money by trying to move it from one account to another despite Congress’s original intent.
His new comments came as senior White House aides gave markedly different takes on where the talks with Democrats stand. Pressure has been increasing since the enhanced unemployment benefits and the moratorium on housing evictions expired. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters that the White House was open to a bigger package than recently envisioned, but Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said both sides were far apart.
“It really is a matter of will, it’s not a matter of substance at this point,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “So this is just the painful period between people finally deciding, ‘OK, we want a deal,’ and what that deal ultimately looks like.”
Mnuchin and Meadows met Monday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., for about two hours.
Schumer said afterward that the group was making progress and that the issue of executive orders had not come up.
“There are a long list of things that are needed, and the good news is our Republican colleagues agree with a few of them,” Schumer said. “The discussion is productive.”
The group has met nearly daily for the past week, with limited signs of progress. Democrats have been holding out for a wide-ranging $3 trillion bill, while Trump administration officials have pushed a short-term fix for unemployment insurance, evictions and perhaps a few other issues.
Complicating matters, each participant in the talks has described the state of affairs differently.
Mnuchin said the administration was open to a comprehensive bill if a deal could be reached.
“The president wants us to get a deal so we can resolve these issues that are very important to the American public,” he said, adding in response to a reporter’s question, “We’re open to a bigger package if we can reach an agreement.”
Schumer said they spent Monday’s meeting comparing elements of a $1 trillion bill that Senate Republicans unveiled last week with the more generous spending provisions Democrats have proposed.
Meadows sounded pessimistic when asked whether the finalized bill could cost more than $1 trillion. “We’re so far apart right now that’s not even a valid question,” he said.
At the White House, asked why he was not taking part in the talks, Trump insisted that he was involved but did not need to be physically present on Capitol Hill to participate.
“I’m totally involved, I’m totally involved,” the president said. But he accused Democrats of “slow-rolling” the talks and said that’s why he might have to act on his own, which experts said could push legal boundaries.
“Trump once again is trying to make an end run around Congress and act unilaterally in an area that generally requires legislative action,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “Executive orders do not exist to replace legislation or the normal give-and-take between the branches in making law.”
The White House’s strategy in the negotiations has shifted several times in the past few weeks. Democrats passed a $3 trillion package in May that included an extension of the $600 weekly enhanced unemployment benefits, new stimulus checks, aid for states and localities, and other measures. The White House expressed opposition to that bill but did not begin negotiations with Democrats until recently. It also took the White House much longer than expected to broker a unified proposal with the Senate GOP after blowback on several of the administration’s ideas. The Republican bill would extend unemployment benefits at a much lower rate.
Despite intense partisanship on Capitol Hill, Congress often manages to act when a deadline forces it to. But lawmakers did not reach a compromise before the enhanced unemployment benefits for about 30 million workers expired at the end of July. The partisan divisions and policy disagreements have intensified as the November elections approach and the bipartisan spirit evident in negotiations earlier in the year have disappeared.
This is one of the variables guiding the White House’s decision to explore unilateral actions. Two people with knowledge of the discussions, who spoke about the sensitive topic on the condition of anonymity, said talks were preliminary and no final decisions had been made. The preferred path is still to make a deal with Congress.
Stephen Moore and Phil Kerpen, two outside economic advisers to the White House, published a Wall Street Journal opinion piece Sunday, urging Trump to declare a “national economic emergency” and announce that the Internal Revenue Service would temporarily defer the collection of payroll taxes. The effect would be to cut payroll taxes for workers, something Trump has long sought, though the legality of such a maneuver could come under immediate attack.