The main story today was that Trump has essentially quit even pretending to govern, and instead created chaos in Washington before leaving for Mar-a-Lago until sometime in the new year. The confusion he has sown promises to keep him central over the holidays, and remaining central is what drives this man.
Today the White House first told staffers that they would “start departing” the week of January 4, then told the same staffers to “please disregard” the earlier memo.
Trump vetoed the $740 billion National Defense Authorization Act today, complaining that this bill, which funds the military and is usually a bipartisan must-pass bill, changed the names of military bases currently named for Confederate officers and did not repeal the protection for social media companies from liability for content posted by third parties. This second demand has nothing to do with the military, but Trump wanted it to give him power to rein in the insults he sees on Twitter and Facebook. Congress is expected to repass the bill over Trump’s veto.
In his fury at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senator John Thune (R-SD) for recognizing Joe Biden as President-Elect, Trump yesterday attacked the hard-won Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 bill, which Congress passed after months of struggle late Monday night. The bill contains a coronavirus relief measure which provides $600 to individuals in a one-time payment. Trump insisted the amount should be $2000. Republicans had rejected a higher payment than $600 during negotiations, and a Republican official noted today that Trump had been informed of the discussions of the bill as they progressed and had made no objection to the terms at the time. His complaints now, the official said, were driven by his desire to skewer McConnell and Thune.
After indicating he might veto the bill and leave the government unfunded, Trump has not told anyone how he would like the bill amended to be sure of his signature. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi urged the president to “sign the bill to keep government open!”
Meanwhile, the president’s attack on the $600 payments has opened the door for Democrats, who always wanted a higher amount, to propose a stand-alone bill increasing those payments. They will likely do so tomorrow night, on Christmas Eve. Republicans still oppose that measure, and Trump has put them in the likely position of voting down this payment to needy Americans on Christmas Eve.
Trump's stall on signing the bill and his sudden call for higher payments also threatens to hurt the Republican Senate candidates in Georgia, who have been campaigning on the promise that there would be a coronavirus relief package before Christmas. Their Democratic challengers have seized on the idea of higher payments, putting the two Republicans, who oppose higher payments, on the spot. A Georgia Republican strategist complained that Trump had put the Republican candidates in “an impossible situation repeatedly throughout the entirety of the runoff.”
In Washington, one top Republican aide told Politico reporters Anita Kumar, Melanie Zanona and Marianne Levine that Trump’s handling of the bill was a “complete clusterf***.”
Trump wasn't done for the day. Tonight, he pardoned 26 more people, including his former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his friend Roger Stone, both of whom were instrumental in connecting the 2016 Trump campaign to Russian operatives. He also pardoned Jared Kushner’s father Charles Kushner, who was convicted of tax evasion, witness tampering, and illegal campaign contributions. It is likely that Attorney General William Barr made his resignation effective today because he didn’t want to be associated with these pardons.
Legal analyst for CNN Elie Honig notes that the pardons mean that “every significant Mueller defendant who refused to cooperate (or started but then stopped) has now been pardoned. Only Rick Gates and Michael Cohen—both of whom testified publicly, in court or Congress—have not been pardoned. The math isn’t hard to do.”
The CDC announced today that more than a million Americans have received a first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, a significant milestone but far below the 20 million goal the administration had aimed for. Currently, the nation is averaging more than 200,000 new cases a day.
As the Trump administration has largely given up governing, the incoming Biden administration is trying to prepare to take over despite being kept in the dark about key issues. The transition process started late, as Trump officials refused to recognize Biden’s election, and now administration officials either can’t or won’t tell Biden’s people what’s going on. In some departments, “the professionals are at a loss” to explain what’s happening, Biden said today. “I can’t tell if I have a clear view of where the landmines are,” he said. His team has not received a briefing from the Defense Department in close to a week, leaving him largely unclear about Russia's recent cyberattack on the government and key businesses, among other things.
Biden says that part of the reason he has chosen old hands in Washington to fill key positions is because they, at least, know the ropes well enough to get the ship of state underway again.