Trump calls on Congress to approve $2,000 stimulus checks, hinting that he might not sign economic relief bill into law without changes

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President Trump on Dec. 22 called on Congress to amend the coronavirus relief bill to increase direct payments to individuals and other “wasteful items.” (Donald J. Trump via Twitter)

“I am also asking Congress to immediately get rid of the wasteful and unnecessary items from this legislation, and to send me a suitable bill, or else the next administration will have to deliver a covid relief package, and maybe that administration will be me,” Trump said.

The 5,593-page bill was introduced Monday afternoon and then passed the House and Senate later in the evening. It passed Congress with broad bipartisan support, clearing the Senate by a 92-6 margin.

Trump’s aides had made positive comments about it but Trump had largely stayed out of negotiations. Last week, he had complained to some aides that he thought the $600 stimulus checks were too low and wanted them raised to $1,200 or $2,000, but aides had convinced him not to intervene, saying it could scuttle the whole package.

Some aides were stunned that Trump weighed in the way he did after his economic team had publicly praised the bill.

But administration officials had negotiated the bill with lawmakers in the final days without explicitly securing Trump’s approval, aides said. He had largely been distracted with overturning the results of the presidential election.

Trump had long wanted to do more than $600 in checks and kept asking aides why they couldn’t agree to a bigger number, an official said.

He released the video on Tuesday after a number of his aides, including Mark Meadows, were already out of town.

“So dumb,” one administration official said. “So, so dumb.”

As the coronavirus pandemic began to move rapidly through the United States in March, Congress passed a massive $2.2 trillion spending bill to try to limit the economic impact. Many of that law’s measures expired over the course of the year, and the recent spike in new cases — and the end of the November election — sparked a bipartisan coalition to seek a new bill. The measure that passed Congress Monday night included $900 billion in new assistance, ranging from the $600 stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment aid for 11 weeks, small business assistance, and a range of other measures.

Trump’s top economic advisers had not signaled that he was unhappy with the bill. In fact, they had suggested they were quite happy with the way the package came together.

“I am pleased that Congress has passed on an overwhelming bipartisan basis additional critical economic relief for American workers, families and businesses,” Mnuchin tweeted seven hours before Trump’s video was posted.

But not all aides were supportive of the measure, though some kept their criticisms closely held.

Aides who dislike the bill particularly used the fact that some of its unrelated spending provisions included foreign aid as a way to turn Trump against the measure, knowing there are few things he hates more than American money going to other countries.

Virtually all of the complaints Trump made in the four-minute video — including foreign aid agreements, aid to the Kennedy Center, fish management language and more — are not part of the $900 billion covid relief agreement but rather included in other, separately negotiated part of the legislation. This part of the bill is a $1.4 trillion omnibus appropriations bill and a bill authorizing $9.9 billion in water projects. These bills and many others were packaged together into one package.

Two congressional aides who had been involved in the negotiations said they were completely unaware of any problems the White House had with the bill. On Sunday, Ben Williamson, a spokesman for White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadow, said publicly ahead of the bill’s release that Trump supported the legislation and would sign it.

Trump’s refusal to publicly embrace the bill as it moved through Congress made some aides nervous, raising the prospect that he would once again cannonball into the pool at the end with a public declaration.

“This is what happens with a president who places more trust in conservative fever swamp Twitter than his own Treasury Secretary. His administration helped negotiate this bill, and he just pulled down the pants of every Republican who voted for it,” said Brendan Buck, a former top aide to Speaker Paul Ryan. Ryan and Buck often struggled with the president changing his mind.

The president has also not shared the fiscal discipline that some of his aides, such as Office of Management and Budget Director Russ Vought, have, and has told advisers that doing only $600 would not be “popular,” in the words of one senior administration official.

The House and Senate passed the bill with such large margins that they could probably override a veto, if Trump tried to block the measure. But that process could take weeks. And in the video, Trump didn’t explicitly say he would veto it. He also didn’t commit, however, to signing it into law.