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December 22, 2020
Late last night, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which combined a $900 billion coronavirus relief bill and a $1.4 trillion spending bill, as well as incorporating a number of other measures. At 5,593 pages, the bill was the longest bill ever passed by Congress, and is one of the largest spending bills ever passed.
The bill provides $300 a week in federal unemployment benefits on top of state benefits, a $13 billion increase in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food support program, a one-time $600 direct payment to individuals, and $25 billion in assistance to help pay past-due rent. It allocates $20 billion to buy more vaccines and about $8 billion to distribute them. Schools will get $82 billion; colleges and universities are in line for $23 billion. Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and tribal colleges and institutions have access to $1.7 billion.
The measure also includes an appropriations bill that will keep the country funded until next September. It is a standard appropriations measure that includes all the normal aid packages and annual funding. The new bill also cuts taxes by about $200 billion and increases military spending by about $5 billion.
The bill made many lawmakers of both parties angry, as it was negotiated by congressional leaders and they had about two hours to absorb what was in it before voting yes or no. This sort of bill, passed at the end of a congressional session, is “a clearing of the decks,” Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University told New York Times reporters Luke Broadwater, Jesse Drucker, and Rebecca R. Ruiz. “It’s all the stuff we wanted to pass but couldn’t. Everybody would love for legislation to be passed individually, but that really is a function of a bygone era that is not coming back.”
Still, it was a bipartisan accomplishment to help dull some of the economic pain of the pandemic and to keep the government funded. Then, tonight, Trump shocked everyone when he released a video attacking the bill, calling its payments of only $600 to individuals a “disgrace” and suggesting he would veto the measure unless Congress increases stimulus payments to $2000.
Trump refused to have anything to do with negotiations on the bill, and his new demand seems primarily designed to undercut Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), at whom Trump is furious for recognizing that Joe Biden won the 2020 election. Last night, Trump sent an email to Republican lawmakers taking credit for McConnell’s victory in Kentucky and blasting McConnell for abandoning Trump and acknowledging Biden’s victory.
Trump is also picking a fight with Senator John Thune (R-SD), the number two Republican in the Senate, warning Thune he would be challenged from the right in 2022 and that his political career is over. “Republicans in the Senate so quickly forget," Trump tweeted. “Right now they would be down 8 seats without my backing them in the last Election.” Thune said that Trump’s efforts to overturn the election by stopping the certification of the votes of the Electoral College on January 6 would “go down like a shot dog.”
Trump is reportedly angry as well at Vice President Mike Pence, who has not been as supportive of Trump’s attempts to overturn the election as the president would like. Indeed, Trump is turning on everyone around him who is not defending his attack on the election results, including White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, White House counsel Pat Cipollone, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as well as McConnell and Pence. Instead of working with them, he is spending his time with fringe advisers-- lawyer Sidney Powell, for example-- who tell him he can still seize the election victory.
If Trump vetoes the Consolidated Appropriations Act—along with the National Defense Authorization Act he has also threatened to veto-- Congress has the votes to override it. But such an override would take time that has now run out.
Meanwhile, Democrats jumped on the suggestion they should increase the stimulus payments that Republicans kept low. In the House, they will likely offer a new, stand-alone bill that authorizes the $2000 payments, using a parliamentary tactic that will require a Republican to go on the record objecting to the measure. Trump is forcing Republicans to choose between him and their party, making the high-stakes gamble that he will win.
He will not. That ship has sailed. The Electoral College has voted and Congress on January 6 will certify the votes that will put Biden in the White House.
But Trump can continue to keep himself in the news by escalating the drama of his behavior, seeking a showdown with the Senate Republicans who are doing their very best to avoid precisely such a showdown. He wants a fight.
Tonight, Trump pardoned 15 people, including four military contractors convicted of opening fire on a crowd and killing 14 unarmed Iraqis in Baghdad in 2007. The men sparked an international outcry about the use of private military contractors in war zones when they fired machine guns and grenade launchers in what came to be known as the Nisour Square massacre. One had been sentenced to life in prison; the other three to 30 years each. When the massacre occurred, the four worked for the Blackwater Worldwide security company, founded by Erik Prince, a key Trump loyalist. Prince is Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s brother.
Trump also pardoned three Republican lawmakers, two of whom were early supporters of his: California Representative Duncan Hunter, convicted of stealing campaign funds, and New York Representative Chris Collins, convicted of insider trading and lying to the FBI.
Trump also pardoned two more of the men swept up in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election: campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about a conversation he had about Russia’s possession of “dirt” on 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton; and Alex van der Zwaan, a Dutch lawyer who was associated with Trump’s campaign chair Paul Manafort. Van der Zwaan pleaded guilty to making a false statement to investigators.
Papadopoulos and van der Zwaan make up two of the now four people involved in the Russia investigation that Trump has pardoned or whose sentence he has commuted. The other two are his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and his adviser Roger Stone, who was convicted of lying under oath, withholding documents, and threatening a witness.
Normally, pardons go through the Justice Department, reviewed by the pardon attorney there, but the president has the right to act without consulting the Department of Justice. He has done so.