As Donald Trump prepared to head to his Florida resort for the holidays, he gave Congress two unwelcome Christmas presents, sparking fears of a government shutdown and casting doubt on a $900bn relief package for Americans suffering from the economic fallout of the pandemic.
Just before boarding his Marine One helicopter to depart the White House on Wednesday, Mr Trump vetoed a $740bn bill that funds everything from weapons to military pay. The veto came less than 24 hours after he rejected a stimulus relief bill that his team had helped craft with Democrats and Republicans.
On top of throwing a spanner into the legislative works on Capitol Hill, Mr Trump on Wednesday issued a series of controversial pardons, including to Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager. That followed another set of pardons on Tuesday, including to four men who killed unarmed Iraqi civilians when they worked for Blackwater, a security company founded by Erik Prince whose sister Betsy DeVos is Mr Trump’s education secretary.
After four years of nonstop chaos and an election loss to Joe Biden that he refuses to accept, Washington is rife with speculation that Mr Trump will use his last weeks in office to inject more turbulence into US politics. And so far the president seems happy to oblige.
In recent days, Mr Trump has taken potshots at Republicans on Twitter, while meeting allies who are propelling conspiracy theories about election fraud and suggesting he impose martial law and re-hold the election.
On Tuesday, Mr Trump took aim at John Thune, a Republican senator, who had said that his effort to contest the election was collapsing like a “shot dog”. He described the lawmaker as a “Rino” — Republican in name only — who was “Mitch’s boy”, in a slur on Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader. Earlier this week, the White House sent Republicans a graph which took credit for helping Mr McConnell keep his Kentucky Senate seat in the November election, even though there was no danger of that.
Some critics have accused Mr Trump of trying to spark turmoil to spite his opponents, while others have suggested that the president is throwing a long temper tantrum because of his failure to win re-election.
“Every day it feels like it gets worse. It is not just incompetence, it feels like malice,” said Mieke Eoyang, a former top Democratic congressional aide. “There’s no American analogue in terms of the scope of what he’s doing . . . I’ve never seen this level of malevolence in American government.”
Some critics portrayed Mr Trump as a petulant child throwing his toys out of his pram. “He just wants to break stuff on the way out,” tweeted George Conway, a Republican lawyer and persistent critic of the president whose wife, Kellyanne Conway, recently served as a White House aide to Mr Trump.
Democrats and Republicans have said that they have both the intention and the necessary votes to override Mr Trump’s objection to the defence bill, which would mark the first time that Congress overrules him over a veto.
But his attack on the $900bn relief bill — and the prospect that he could again wield his veto — presents a more complicated challenge for lawmakers. The stimulus package was bundled together with a $14tn omnibus spending bill to fund the government. Unless Congress passes the measure — or a temporary spending bill — by midnight on Monday, the government will run out of funding.
While Congress has had plenty of year-end battles over government funding under successive presidents, Mr Trump has created an unprecedented crisis given the other challenges facing the government. As Mr Biden prepares to take office on January 20, the US is dealing with a surge in coronavirus cases with almost 3,000 people dying every day.
The government is also scrambling to determine how much damage has been done by a massive, and ongoing, cyber attack that US officials have blamed on Russia. Meanwhile, millions of Americans remain out of work and are relying on some level of help from the federal government.
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“We had the government shutdowns in 1995, and the fiscal cliff in 2012 — both taking place during the holidays when everyone wants to just go home,” said Tony Fratto, a Republican former Treasury official.
“This one is different in that Trump is trying to break up a bill that was tricky to construct, and we’re also at a confluence of crises — health, economic, and cyber. We need seriousness more than ever, but we’re getting more games.”
In railing against the relief bill on Tuesday, Mr Trump described it as a “disgrace” and urged lawmakers to increase stimulus payment cheques to American adults from the $600 that was agreed after months of negotiations to $2,000 — a figure Democrats had long argued for but that was rejected by Republicans.
“I have been pushing for $2,000 stimulus checks for the last six months, so I welcome Trump’s sudden support,” said Brendan Boyle, a Democratic congressman. “We’re going to try to pass it in the House by ‘unanimous consent’ on Thursday. The question is: will House Republicans object?”
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House of Representatives speaker, plans to try to pass a measure raising the figure to $2,000 via “unanimous consent”, but that requires support from every Republican. If she fails and Mr Trump does not reverse course, lawmakers will have to reopen negotiations or gamble that they have the votes to override Mr Trump if he issues a formal veto.
While the House has created procedures to allow many members to vote remotely, the Senate still requires in-person voting, meaning the members may have to return to Washington just after Christmas Day.
Mr Trump’s intervention on the relief bill has also created a big headache for Republicans who had consistently opposed providing more money. Democrats are already using Mr Trump’s call for bigger payments to help their candidates in two key Senate run-off races in Georgia in January.
If the Democrats oust both Republican incumbents, the Senate will be split 50-50, which would give Mr Biden’s party effective control because Kamala Harris, his incoming vice-president, would cast the decisive vote.
In the final weeks of his presidency, Washington is also preparing for other possible actions that could spark more volatility. After departing the White House for his Mar-a-Lago resort on Wednesday, Mr Trump tweeted a warning to Iran not to test American resolve during his final weeks in office.
“Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over.”
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