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Trump orders aides to halt talks on COVID-19 relief

The Hill logo The Hill 10/6/2020 Morgan Chalfant,Mike Lillis and Scott Wong
Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: Trump orders aides to halt talks on COVID-19 relief © Getty Images Trump orders aides to halt talks on COVID-19 relief

President Trump said Tuesday that he has instructed his top aides to stop negotiating with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on future coronavirus stimulus legislation until after the November election, a risky move just weeks before voters head to the polls.

Trump, who is himself currently being treated for COVID-19, accused Pelosi in a series of tweets Tuesday afternoon of "not negotiating in good faith" and seeking "bailouts" for states he says are poorly run by Democratic officials.

"I have instructed my representatives to stop negotiating until after the election when, immediately after I win, we will pass a major Stimulus Bill that focuses on hardworking Americans and Small Business," Trump tweeted.

The message marked a sharp reversal for the president, who just three days earlier had urged leaders of both parties to come together to finalize an agreement that can hit his desk before the Nov. 3 elections.

"OUR GREAT USA WANTS & NEEDS STIMULUS. WORK TOGETHER AND GET IT DONE," Trump tweeted on Saturday afternoon, a day after he checked into the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to be treated for COVID-19.

Pelosi quickly condemned Trump's move Tuesday, accusing the president of neglecting his office by refusing to provide help to those struggling under the health and economic weight of the pandemic.

"Today, once again, President Trump showed his true colors: putting himself first at the expense of the country, with the full complicity of the GOP Members of Congress," she said in a statement.

The Democratic leader added that the White House "is in complete disarray."

In derailing the talks, Trump seems to be betting that his best shot at reelection is not in getting new emergency funding out the door before Nov. 3, but instead dangling the promise of more aid for after voters go to the polls - particularly if he wins.

The president singled out one area of the talks where both sides have remained far apart for weeks: help for state and local governments. Pelosi is seeking more than $430 billion for those localities, while Republicans have rejected that figure as far too high, wary that Democrats simply want to rescue blue states facing budget crunches as the result of policy decisions made before the pandemic started.

"Nancy Pelosi is asking for $2.4 Trillion Dollars to bailout poorly run, high crime, Democrat States, money that is in no way related to COVID-19," Trump tweeted. "We made a very generous offer of $1.6 Trillion Dollars and, as usual, she is not negotiating in good faith."

The strategy is a risky one. Millions of Americans remain out of work; thousands of businesses are on the brink of collapse; the major airlines have furloughed tens of thousands of employees in recent days; and American consumers have been wary of returning to restaurants, theaters and public transit, even in regions where they've reopened.

Earlier Tuesday, Jerome Powell, head of the Federal Reserve, warned that the long-term effects on the economy could be devastating if Congress fails to act quickly with more emergency relief - comments not overlooked by Pelosi, who has leaned heavily on Powell's grim forecasts as leverage throughout the talks. And stocks immediately plunged after Trump announced he would call off the negotiations until after the election, which is now four weeks away.

Trump's tweets came shortly after the president hosted a call with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and top congressional Republicans - Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) - about the status of the talks.

McConnell and McCarthy have both been cold to the idea of adopting another massive round of stimulus. And the fact that it was their message, not Mnuchin's, that resonated with the president is some indication of the level of Republican distrust in the Treasury secretary, who has come under fire from the GOP in earlier negotiations for giving away too much to Pelosi.

Trump's actions appeared to come as a surprise to Pelosi and the Democrats. Mnuchin has been speaking daily with Pelosi, and just minutes before Trump's tweets, Pelosi told rank-and-file Democrats on a private conference call that she and Mnuchin continued to make progress and that she was waiting to hear back from the White House on state and local funding and other Democratic priorities.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told Democrats on the same call that the House could be called back to Washington as early as next week to vote if such a deal materialized. In a brief courtesy call Tuesday afternoon, Mnuchin confirmed to Pelosi that Trump had called off the talks, an aide said.

"I'm incredulous," moderate Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) told The Hill after Trump's tweet. "Given President Trump's own COVID diagnosis and his earlier comments in support of a bill with 'much higher numbers' it is confounding and unconscionable that he would suddenly order a cessation of negotiations over a much-needed COVID-19 relief bill."

"American families and America's small businesses are hurting and cannot afford even more delays - especially when a deal is within reach," Phillips said.

Trump's head-snapping turnaround in his approach to the Covid talks sparked immediate speculation among Pelosi and other Democrats that Trump's drug regimen, which includes a steroid linked to mood swings, might be influencing his decision-making from the White House.

"Believe me, there are people ... who think that steroids have an impact on your thinking. So, I don't know," Pelosi said on a call with Democrats after Trump's tweets, according to two sources. "I do practice medicine on the side without benefit of a diploma, as a mother and a grandmother, but I hadn't gone into mental health yet."

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday afternoon, McConnell said that he supports Trump's decision.

"I think his view was that they were not going to produce a result, and we needed to concentrate on what's achievable," McConnell said.

Trump is currently trailing Democratic nominee Joe Biden in national and swing-state polling. The president's handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been a central issue in the election.

Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows have been negotiating with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) since late July on a fifth bipartisan coronavirus relief package but have been unsuccessful in reaching an agreement.

The president has remained largely on the sidelines in the negotiations, allowing Meadows and Mnuchin to take the lead on the discussions.

Trump and Pelosi have a particularly chilly relationship and have not had a meaningful conversation for an entire year. In lieu of a deal in August, Trump signed a handful of executive orders aimed at halting federal evictions, extending expanded unemployment benefits and deferring the payroll tax.

The president returned to the White House on Monday evening after 72 hours of treatment for the coronavirus at Walter Reed. Trump, who was diagnosed with the virus on Thursday, has sought to project an image of strength by showing that he has returned to work amid his illness.

Trump has also urged Americans not to fear the virus or allow it to "dominate" their lives, remarks that have been met with scrutiny from health experts who argue that he has dangerously minimized the threat from COVID-19.

- Jordain Carney contributed.

Updated: Oct. 7 at 9:16 a.m.

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