With Jobless Aid Expired, Trump Sidelines Himself in Stimulus Talks

On the first day of the first full week when tens of millions of Americans went without the federal jobless aid that has cushioned them during the pandemic, President Trump was not cajoling undecided lawmakers to embrace a critical stimulus bill to stabilize the foundering economy.

He was at the White House, hurling insults at the Democratic leaders whose support he needs to strike a deal.

Mr. Trump called Speaker Nancy Pelosi “Crazy Nancy,” charging that she had no interest in helping the unemployed. He said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, only wanted to help “radical left” governors in states run by Democrats. And he threatened to short-circuit a delicate series of negotiations to produce a compromise and instead unilaterally impose a federal moratorium on tenant evictions.

The comments came just as Mr. Trump’s own advisers were on Capitol Hill meeting with Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer in search of an elusive deal, and they underscored just how absent the president had been from the negotiations. They also highlighted how, three months before he is to face voters, the main role that Mr. Trump appears to have embraced in assembling an economic recovery package is that of sniping from the sidelines in ways that undercut a potential compromise.

On Monday, the president said he remained “totally involved” in the talks, even though he was not “over there with Crazy Nancy.” But while White House officials say that he is interested in the talks and is closely monitoring them, he has not sought to use the full powers of his office to prod a deal, and more often he has complicated the already sensitive negotiations.

The situation reflects the dysfunctional dynamic that Mr. Trump has developed with leaders of both parties in Congress. He has a toxic relationship with Ms. Pelosi, with whom he has not met face-to-face since last year. And Republicans have learned to eye their own president warily in delicate negotiations, knowing that he is prone to changing his position, bucking party principles and leaving them to suffer the political consequences of high-profile collapses.

In the stimulus talks, Mr. Trump’s ideas have often been out of sync with members of his own party. On Monday, he said he was considering acting on his own to eliminate payroll taxes, something a president does not have the power to do himself, and an idea that his advisers had dropped from the talks in the face of near-unanimous opposition by Republican lawmakers. The eviction moratorium he has championed was not a part of the Republican plan.

“I’ll do it myself if I have to,” Mr. Trump said.

While that might be possible, virtually every other measure under discussion to stimulate the economy would require congressional approval.

The stakes of the negotiations could not be higher. Business leaders pleaded with lawmakers to draft a sweeping recovery package to help the hardest-hit industries survive the crisis. And economists warned that the expiration of the $600-per-week enhanced unemployment payments could already be dragging down consumer spending.

On Monday, Ms. Pelosi floated a possible compromise to extend the benefits, saying that Democrats might be open to tying the weekly payments, which Republicans are pressing to cut substantially, to the unemployment rate, allowing the amount to fall in tandem with the jobless rate.

“That’s something to talk about,” Ms. Pelosi said on CNN. “Right now, today, we have an emergency. A building is on fire, and they are deciding how much water they want to have in the bucket.”

Privately, she warned House Democrats during an afternoon conference call that while she had hoped to reach a deal with the White House this week, she was no longer sure that was possible, according to two people on the call who described it on the condition of anonymity.

Some lawmakers saw the glimmers of a possible bargain, although they warned the process of striking it would not be pretty.

“This is just the painful period between people finally deciding, ‘OK, we want a deal,’ and what that deal ultimately looks like,” Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, told reporters.

At the same moment that Mr. Trump was blasting her, Ms. Pelosi met on Capitol Hill with Mr. Schumer; Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff; and Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, in search of a compromise. It was the sixth such in-person meeting in eight days, and followed a rare Saturday session with the four negotiators.

Mr. Trump, who spent Saturday and Sunday on his golf course in Virginia, berated Democrats from the White House on Monday, accusing them of being blinded by a focus on “bailout money” for states controlled by Democrats, as opposed to extending unemployment benefits.

“All they’re really interested in is bailout money to bail out radical left governors and radical left mayors like in Portland and places that are so badly run — Chicago, New York City,” Mr. Trump said.

In their $3 trillion recovery package, Democrats have proposed providing more than $900 billion to cash-strapped states and cities whose budgets have been devastated in the recession, while Republicans did not include any money for them in their $1 trillion plan. But it is Republicans who have proposed cutting the jobless aid, while Democrats are pushing to extend the $600 weekly federal payments through January.

Later in the day, Mr. Trump sounded a less hostile note, even as he repeated that he could halt evictions with an executive order.

“But we are having a very good discussion with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,” he added during a late-afternoon briefing.

White House officials describe Mr. Trump as interested in the talks, but from a distance. He calls Mr. Meadows, a former House member, for updates nearly a dozen times on some days, and in general gets briefed in 10-minute increments from other aides. He makes frequent calls to allies like Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, and to Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader.

But he does not reach out to members of the House he is not personally close with to use the power of persuasion that comes with the presidency, they concede, and he is expending little energy of his own to move the ball forward.

Last Thursday, when Mr. Meadows was asked by reporters why the president did not simply bring congressional leaders to the Oval Office and keep everyone there until there was a deal, Mr. Meadows replied, “You’ve seen that movie before,” prompting laughter.

Previous efforts by Mr. Trump to convene a bipartisan meeting of the minds at the White House have proved disastrous.

On Capitol Hill, the group discussing a possible deal spent two hours going over the proposal put forward by Republicans a week ago and “going to these specific numbers and what each side thinks they can do with their dollar allocation,” Mr. Schumer said.

“We’re really getting an understanding of each side’s position and we’re making some progress on certain issues, moving closer together,” he added afterward. “There are a lot of issues that are still outstanding, but I think there is a desire to get something done as soon as we can.”

Ms. Pelosi sounded a hopeful tone, as well, saying, “We’re moving down the track,” even though significant differences remained between the two proposals.

But after the meeting, Mr. Schumer said that Republicans were “sticking to their position” on maintaining the $600 weekly federal unemployment benefits, and Ms. Pelosi added, “We’re sticking to ours.”

While White House officials and Democratic leaders reported some progress over the weekend in their talks, they still have substantial differences. Democrats are pressing to maintain the enhanced federal unemployment payments, bail out strapped states and cities, send billions of dollars to schools and extend additional health care and food aid funds, as well as protections for workers. Republicans want to scale back the jobless money, devote $105 billion to schools and include a broad liability shield to protect businesses from being held legally liable for the spread of the virus.

Republicans initially proposed to cut the $600-per-week unemployment benefit and shift to a system that would pad the typical unemployed worker’s check by about $200 per week. Last week, Senate Republicans offered a one-week extension of the $600 supplement, which Democrats rejected. Administration officials later offered a longer-term extension at a lower rate, which Democrats again rejected.

Congressional staff and lobbyists who are engaged in discussions said on Monday that the talks between administration officials and Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer had essentially frozen negotiations between top Democrats and Republicans on key committees who would have to hammer out the details of any deal. That could leave the parties little time to flesh out any compromises over additional aid to businesses or individuals, yielding a plan that mostly consists of re-upping existing aid programs like the Paycheck Protection Program and direct payments to individuals.

A group of executives led by the former Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz, which included several major business groups and top executives from companies like Alphabet and Facebook, sent a letter to congressional leaders on Monday urging more aggressive efforts like long-term, federally guaranteed loans to help small businesses in any new rescue package.

“This is not a call for bottomless handouts,” they wrote. “It is a defining moment to show how capitalism can help all Americans, particularly entrepreneurs who have been forced to shutter or reduce the capacity of their businesses through no fault of their own.”

Luke Broadwater contributed reporting.

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