Sidestepping Congress, Trump Signs Executive Measures for Pandemic Relief

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For Mr. Trump, signing the orders was a familiar tactic from a president who has portrayed himself as the ultimate deal-maker, but in practice has shown little interest in or skill for negotiating with Congress, bristling against the limitations of his power. It recalled his decision in 2018 to shut down the government over his demand for funding for a wall on the southwestern border, his signature campaign promise, in an effort to force Democrats to agree to the money. They never did, and the president ultimately declared a national emergency to divert other federal money to fund it himself, a move that drew legal challenges.

Shortly after the event on Saturday, the White House released texts of the measures — one executive order and three memorandums — which included several flourishes that read like political documents. One invoked the Stafford Act, a federal disaster relief statute, to divert money from a homeland security fund and allow states to use money already allocated by Congress to help people who have been laid off amid the coronavirus pandemic, effectively allowing them to apply for disaster relief to cover lost wages. The mechanism would pull from the same fund that covers natural disasters in the middle of what is expected to be a highly active hurricane season.

Mr. Trump claimed that the action would provide $400 weekly in enhanced unemployment benefits, $200 less than laid-off workers had been receiving under benefits that lapsed at the end of July. But with states being directed to pick up $100 of that aid, the federal amount would be no more than $300 a week.

It was unclear how quickly states, whose unemployment systems had already been overburdened by the record numbers of new jobless claims, would be able to adjust to a new system, or whether they will have the resources to supplement an additional benefit.

“If they don’t, they don’t — that’s going to be their problem,” Mr. Trump said.

He also retroactively signed a memorandum suspending the payroll tax from Aug. 1 through the end of 2020, though the order would just defer the payment of the taxes without congressional action. (Mr. Trump vowed that if re-elected in November, he would extend the deferral and the payments.)

If Mr. Trump tried to make a payroll tax cut permanent, it would have drastic effect on the funding of Social Security, which he has previously vowed not to cut.

The memorandum that Mr. Trump called a moratorium on evictions did not revive the expired moratorium that was part of the $2.2 trillion stimulus law. Instead, it said that federal policy was to minimize evictions during the pandemic and that officials should identify statutory ways to help homeowners and renters.