On Saturday Donald Trump announced, in a bizarre golf clubhouse speech to an audience of millionaires, a series of "executive orders" that he will (attempt to) undertake as substitute for negotiating new pandemic aid packages with Congress. Those talks had stalled due to Republican Senate indifference as to passing anything, Trump team unwillingness to assist state governments in economic crisis due to the pandemic, and Democratic insistence that Trump's new postmaster general stop actively sabotaging the U.S. mail system during that pandemic.
Because Trump has surrounded himself with conservatism's least competent blowhards—namely, whichever self-promoting grifters impress him during Fox News appearances—the executive orders produced manage to both do extremely bad things, and to do them illegally. The Trump team is looking to manage the nation's spending and tax policies out from under Congress. The Constitution, back when it existed, does not technically allow that; then again, the Constitution doesn't allow a president to accept foreign bribes, either, but here we are.
The Washington Post's Heather Long gives an overview of both the content and implications of Trump's orders. For one thing, only one of what Trump called his four "executive orders" is actually an executive order; the rest are memorandums, which are ... not the same thing. He also at one point referred to them as "bills"; that's even more wrong, and does even less to suggest Trump has even a passing familiarity with his own actual job.
The biggest "thing" Trump announced—in a memo, not an order—is a Trump instruction to the U.S. Treasury to simply stop collecting payroll taxes for the duration of the year. This "payroll tax holiday" has been a hobbyhorse for conservatism for some time, a brute-force means of depriving Social Security of funds so that, when the resulting deficits appear, it can later be pointed to as a program in crisis and sharply curtailed.
As far as pandemic stimulus goes, however, this ranks only slightly above Republicanism's other no-really-they-proposed-this idea of allowing 100% tax write-off of business lunches. The federal payroll tax only affects people who are on a payroll. The crisis of the moment is massive, depression-level unemployment, which a "tax cut" will not solve in any way whatsoever. It's nonsensical. No businesses are going to hire workers for now-shuttered or shrunken businesses on the basis of an imaginary tax cut.
That's right: imaginary. There's a catch here, and it's a big one. Trump doesn't eliminate the payroll tax, he simply orders the tax deferred until next year. That means that every American worker struggling to make ends meet during an actual, once-per-century worldwide pandemic will have to come up with a lump-sum payment of all of those deferred taxes when the year is out. That's obviously untenable; what Trump's team intends is to force Congress into a position where they have to save taxpayers from this new manufactured double-crisis by forgiving those tax debts.
If it works out as Trump's team plans, either Social Security gets massively defunded or a very large chunk of working America faces a new balloon payment come next April or so. Meanwhile, the actual pandemic itself rolls on unimpeded by the White House. (Similarly, another of Trump's not-executive-orders does the same thing for federal student loans: Payments may be delayed with no interest, but only until January.)
Because this is also Donald Trump we're talking about, this memorandum came with a explosive Trump ad-lib that either gave away his advisers' larger game or is just the babbling of an idiot. Trump said that if is reelected he would "terminate" these taxes permanently. To every ear, that sounded like a Trump promise to ... end Social Security outright. Just wipe it from the books. It was up to the failingest economic crackpot in America, Trump adviser Larry Kudlow, to Trumpsplain to the nation that Trump did not mean what he said, he's just incredibly dumb and couldn't explain his own supposed policies.
The other "big" memorandum announced on Saturday is an attempt to extend pandemic unemployment aid without involving Congress. Congressional Democrats wanted, at minimum, the $600-max-per-week aid payments to continue. Republicans, fearing that number would dissuade Americans from working (during a pandemic in which there is no work) and turn them lazy, begrudgingly offered $200 a week.
The Trump memo attempting to get around Congress on this one is a doozy. It raids the Department of Homeland Security's Disaster Relief Fund, the fund that enables Federal Emergency Management Association assistance after large-scale natural disasters such as fires or hurricanes, to the tune of $44 billion dollars. This money will be used to pay for $400 per week in aid until the money runs out, which it would in about a month. It is similar in nature to Trump's raiding of Defense Department funds to allocate towards building his "wall" along the southern border, ignoring the Constitution's placement of federal spending powers with Congress to simply spend whatever Trump's team wants to spend on whatever they want to spend it on.
There are (ahem) several problems with this, all of them rather ... existential ... in nature. First off, it appears to be brazenly illegal. Trump's team simply takes the money, in clear violation of the laws that govern how the Disaster Relief Fund money can be spent. (America's worst economist had to publicly walk back his own prior statements presuming such a move would be illegal, in fact.) It empties out the fund during what's predicted to be one of the most active Atlantic hurricane seasons on record. And Trump's memorandum specifies that the funding can only be used in states that chip in $100 of that $400 per week themselves.
This means that it's not even a true extension of federal unemployment aid, but some sort of hybrid new program—one that could take "months" to even get off the ground.
Kudlow had to play the fool on this topic too, on the Sunday shows, admitting that the White House doesn't know how many states would even be able to come up with the necessary funds themselves, during the effing worldwide pandemic. On the plus side, if no states can afford to participate in the Trump plan, the $44 billion will last indefinitely: The problem solves itself.
That brings us to the last of the Things Trump called "executive orders," and the only one that is an actual executive order. Trump issued an executive order to ask his officials to "consider" whether a ban on residential evictions might be "reasonably necessary." Oh, and asks Housing and Urban Development to "identify" what Federal funds might in theory be used to help renters and homeowners. And do whatever existing law says they can do about the problem. Yeah, doesn't have the heft of the others, does it. But it, unlike the others, is definitely an "executive order."
Yes, there's a Kudlow clip. Yes, it's as humiliating as the others.
So that's where we're at, and it is a place both familiar and not. What Trump actually signed bears very little resemblance to what Trump said he signed, during his golf-club announcement speech. It is in equal parts unworkable, ineffective, and illegal—and in fact the only way to make his orders even remotely effective would of necessity mean they were illegal, and the only way to interpret them as legal would of necessity mean they were nigh-on useless. His own advisers are contradicting what the memos say, and what Trump says they say, and their own past statements.
It is an attempt at an authoritarian override of Congress that glibly and intentionally undermines multiple federal programs in an ideologically-premised prescription that has little to nothing to do with the actual problem that faces us, a nationwide pandemic that is forcing the closure of much of the economy, most of our education systems, producing mass poverty, and killing people.
Much of the rest of the world is well on the way to controlling the pandemic until a vaccine can be produced by taking the core actions prescribed by each nation's experts from the beginning: Vigorous testing, social isolation, and enough financial aid to absorb the effects of needed local or national closures. While they're doing that, our fascist-minded but catastrophically stupid executive heads are using the pandemic to sabotage mail delivery, take a large bite from Social Security, and revive the business lunch.
From a golf club, no less. I mean, of course it would be from a golf club.