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Nancy Pelosi Sets a Bear Trap; Trump Irish Step Dances Into It

The president walks away from the coronavirus talks and all but guarantees he'll take the blame come November.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) holds her weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol May 20, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

What crackerjack political maneuvers will Donald Trump embark on next? Maybe he’ll deploy the Space Force to Kenosha; maybe he actually will shoot someone on Fifth Avenue. I’m with Rod: I never saw this latest blunder coming. And given that 2020 has conditioned us to expect the worst, that’s saying something:

President Donald Trump said Tuesday he has told his administration’s negotiators to end coronavirus stimulus talks with Democrats until after the Nov. 3 election.

The declaration halts an ongoing push to send trillions of dollars more in relief to Americans as the outbreak rampages through the U.S. and the economy struggles to recover from virus-related shutdowns. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke for an hour about a relief package on Monday and planned to talk about a possible agreement again Tuesday. Trump, who has Covid-19 himself, had only three days ago urged the sides to complete a deal after taking no direct role in the talks for months.

Democrats and Republicans have been haggling for months over another round of stimulus. Disagreements abound but there seem to be three main points of contention: the overall size of the package (Pelosi wants big, Republicans prefer more modest), funds for state and local governments (Republicans don’t want to bail out fiscally volcanic blue states), and liability protections for businesses and health care providers (Republicans want them, Democrats don’t). At the junction of all this sits Steve Mnuchin, the treasury secretary and a hardline pragmatist, who helped talk Pelosi down from $3.5 trillion to $2.2 trillion and was trying to get her to go further.

Mnuchin is an interesting cat. He’s emerged as a survivor in an often bloody administration, mixing public loyalty to the president with private backroom dealmaking. Last month, the New York Times ran a profile of him, and caught him frustrated over the stalled stimulus talks (emphasis added):

By the time Mnuchin and I met in mid-September, the prospect of a second stimulus before the November elections had collapsed into mutual recrimination. “Democrats have repeatedly compromised in these negotiations,” Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, told me, noting that they had offered to come down $1.2 trillion and were waiting for the White House to meet them in the middle. Mnuchin, meanwhile, complained about the Democrats’ demands beyond the price tag. “My takeaway,” he told me, “is the speaker and Senator Schumer have decided they don’t really want to do a deal right now.”

I think that’s about right. Despite her diplomatic posturing, Pelosi has been partisan and imperious from the start; even the moderates in her caucus have grown concerned. She always knew the $3.5 trillion number was never going to fly. She always knew Republicans would never approve of bailouts for blue states—Mitch McConnell said as much out loud. Yet she pressed on anyway, wasting valuable time, pronouncing dead on arrival a $300 billion “skinny” stopgap measure that Senate Republicans proposed in September. Part of this is that Pelosi wants to use stimulus as cover for Democratic policy priorities. Part of it—my read anyway—is that she knows Trump is taking political damage from the pandemic and doesn’t want to give him a win just ahead of the election. It’s ruthless zero-sum politics, as “going out of business” signs continue to haunt windows.

Yet Pelosi being cynical is nothing new; what’s truly incredible is how thoroughly and blatantly Trump has sashayed into her trap. By withdrawing from the negotiations, he’s guaranteed that blame will fall at the White House doorstep. Presidents are sometimes blamed for things that are Congress’ fault and sometimes manage to stand above things that are their own fault. Trump, whether out of spite or steroids, has now eliminated any ambiguity as to who will be held accountable. It’s him who looks like he’s playing politics now, him who appears uncaring. Seemingly aware of this, he tried last night to pull a U-turn. He took to Twitter—the same way the Founding Fathers communicated—and called for airline bailouts, direct aid to Americans, financial help for small businesses. Yet it may be too late. Why would Pelosi budge now?

Thus do we end a week that began with Trump embarrassing himself at a presidential debate, continued with him being laid low by the coronavirus, and ended with him unloading an RPG into his own foot. Trump has benefitted in the past from an aura of competence, a sense that whatever his faults he’s a good manager, his business background providing Teflon. Can we finally dispense with all that now?

No one loathes Congress’ reckless overspending more than I do. No one deplores more that we didn’t improve the fiscal picture during the Trump boom years. But government can’t now order the economy shuttered and not make up some of the difference. It can’t bail out the banks in 2008 and then come up with empty pockets for dive bars in 2020. Yet here we sit, hostages to presidential wrath and the political calendar. The stupidity is almost too immense to fathom: government can’t even manage to spend money anymore.

about the author

Matt Purple is a senior editor at The American Conservative.

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