Why didn't Trump demand $2,000 stimulus checks before the election?

Last night’s surprise demand for more generous checks in the new COVID relief package was baffling in a hundred ways but none more so than the timing. Pelosi and Mnuchin have been negotiating this deal since summer. At any point Trump could have burst through the wall like Kool-Aid Man and said, “Oh yeeeeaaaah. Two grand for everyone.” Last night, he finally did — seven weeks after losing the election and one day after Congress already, uh, passed a final bill.


Yes, I realize that he did sporadically call for beefier checks before Election Day. In early October, for instance, he proposed Hawley-esque $1,200 payments for everyone. But he never went to the mat for them the way he did last night with a dramatic video ultimatum. In fact, for most of the fall he seemed completely checked out of the negotiation process, farming it out to Mnuchin and Mark Meadows while he campaigned (and battled COVID). If he had thrown down the gauntlet and forced a showdown over $2,000 checks in the final weeks before the election, he very well might have won. He lost Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia by something like 45,000 votes combined. An early visit from Santa Trump leaving big checks under the tree might have flipped those states, creating a 269-269 electoral college tie. If Nevada had flipped too he would have won outright.

Why the hell didn’t he do this before November 3? Pundits of all stripes were mystified as to why he let the Senate GOP boss him around on the one thing that might have boosted him meaningfully in the polls. Let me quote myself on October 6, the day Trump tweeted that he was giving up on stimulus negotiations(!): “The $200 gift cards for prescription drugs that the White House is looking to send to seniors is a naked attempt to bribe them with taxpayer money before Election Day. The [stimulus] negotiations with Pelosi are an opportunity to increase that bribe by several orders of magnitude and expand it to a much larger segment of the electorate. And yet, instead of grabbing Senate Republicans by the throat and telling them to get it done, he’s walking away.”

The supreme irony of last night’s demand is that he’s been grasping around for conspiracy theories to explain why he lost the election when his protracted inattention to the country’s most pressing policy crisis explains it much more neatly. He didn’t get his hands dirty on COVID negotiations until 50 days into his lame-duck tenure, after Congress had finally, finally, finally come to an agreement. Why didn’t he do that months ago? What on earth was he thinking?

Why he didn’t act sooner to help himself is half the mystery. Why he acted last night, surely knowing how badly it would hurt Senate Republicans, is the other half. This is a Category Five clusterfark for Mitch McConnell since it puts the president on the side of Pelosi and the Democrats in demanding checks that Cocaine Mitch’s caucus doesn’t want to approve. They’re screwed now no matter what they do. If the Senate GOP refuses Trump’s demand for more money then the deal falls apart, no aid goes out to desperately hurting Americans, and Republicans get all the blame. If the Senate GOP grudgingly agrees to Trump’s demand then the big show they’re putting on about being deficit hawks again as Biden prepares to take office will be exposed for the fraud that is — by the leader of their own party.

Did I neglect to mention that there’s an election coming up in Georgia that’ll determine control of the Senate in which the president is now momentarily aligned with Democrats against the McConnell-backed Republicans?

Pelosi is so excited about Trump’s proposal that she’s going to bring it to the floor on Christmas Eve during a pro forma session of the House and offer it for unanimous consent, creating a no-win situation for Republicans. Any House GOPer can block it by objecting, but doing so would mean (a) you’re against the president’s idea and (b) you’re inviting voters to blame Republicans for thwarting the checks. On the other hand, if no House Republican objects, that means the $2,000 check proposal advances to the Senate and lands like a flaming bag of sh*t on McConnell’s doorstep. Then it becomes his problem to convince his caucus of pretend “fiscal conservatives” to either bite the bullet and pass it or go to war with Trump to block it — again, knowing that voters will blame them for doing so.

Did I also neglect to mention that, because the COVID package is part of the same bill as government funding for the next nine months, this is all happening with a shutdown looming? McConnell thought he had dodged that bullet when he and Pelosi finally made a deal. Now here’s Trump grabbing the gun and firing another bullet right at the Senate GOP’s heart.

Is it even true that Congress can override his veto and pass the bill as is? They have the votes to do it — I think. (The bill passed both chambers with far more than two-thirds support but that could change now that Trump has signaled his opposition.) The problem isn’t mustering the votes in this case, it’s the timing. Chad Pergram of Fox News pointed out last night that this term of Congress ends on January 3. In theory, Trump could run out the clock on the session by executing a “pocket veto,” i.e. neither signing nor vetoing the bill within 10 days after it’s presented to him. In this case, because the session will end before the pocket veto takes effect, I believe it would mean that the bill would expire and would have to be re-passed by the new Congress in January. Then Trump could run off another 10 days or formally veto that one (or sign it, of course), and then the new Congress could attempt an override. But that means forcing Americans to go without aid for several more weeks until this gets hashed out, just when it seemed like Congress was finally about to help. And it also creates uncertainty in that, once the bill comes back to the floor, members of the new Congress may want other things added to or subtracted from it that could end up jeopardizing the deal.

Imagine the first week of January with all of that happening:

WaPo spoke to one administration official last night about all of this. How did they feel about the president blowing up COVID relief at 11:59 on the legislative clock? “So dumb,” he said. “So, so dumb.” Democrats don’t have to lift a finger; it’s now Trump versus the GOP. As for the rest of the president’s complaints about the bill in the video he posted, all of which had to do with the government funding portion rather than the COVID relief part, that’s hard to understand too:

One way he could avoid a crisis would be to sign the bill as-is and then demand an additional bill for a new round of $1,400 checks. Combined with the $600 checks in the current one, that would get him to $2,000. The problem with that approach, though, is that Senate Republicans would have no incentive to cooperate with him on further checks. All of the leverage he has over them at the moment stems from the dire consequences that would result if the current bill doesn’t become law. Once that leverage is gone, the Senate GOP can shrug him off in the knowledge that he’ll be out of office in a matter of weeks. *If* he’s serious about getting to $2,000 then he has to be willing to plunge the country into crisis — one for which he and especially the legislators in his own party will be blamed.

Which brings us to the big question. Why’d he do it? Why, with weeks to go and many months of quiescence about the stimulus negotiations under his belt, did he finally do the Kool-Aid Man thing last night? My guess is that it’s another case of him being influenced by whichever media and advisors have been in his ear most recently. He’s probably been reading online commentary from righties grumbling about foreign aid in the bill and didn’t realize that his own budget plan called for much of that foreign aid. And maybe he’s hearing from the likes of Josh Hawley and other populists that $600 checks are a meager amount and that he should do better to show that he’s looking out for working-class Americans. A nice thought, but one that would have been much nicer for everyone in October.

But I wonder if what cinched this for him was his realization of how badly it would screw McConnell and the Senate GOP. He’s already declared war on the caucus leadership and is planning to declare war on the backbenchers on January 6 after they vote to certify Biden’s victory. As his anxiety over losing the election rises, he’s probably never felt less secure about the “loyalty” of establishment Republicans than he does right now and is searching for new and ever more draconian ways to test that loyalty. Daring them to override his veto of the defense bill is one. The vote on January 6 will be a momentous one. But blowing up their stimulus deal and then telling them, “Whaddaya gonna do about it?”, is another. He may have done it just to see what would happen if he made an outlandish last-second demand like tripling (more than tripling, actually) the amount in the checks provided for in the bill. Will McConnell and the rest kneel before Zod and do what he wants or will they show more “disloyalty”? If they’re disloyal, that’s just one more reason for MAGA fans to hate them. Trump wants a war with the party to punish them for not backing him up on election fraud and this may be one of the early battles in it.

Update: Exactly my point in the last paragraph: