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If Trump Really Wants to Kill the Relief Bill, Congress Can’t Stop Him

Trump walks away from Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, past a uniformed service member saluting him.
Our president seems to be feeling himself. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

So Donald Trump took a breather from plotting history’s most ineffectual coup on Tuesday night in order to toss a grenade into Washington’s holiday plans, tweeting a surprise video in which he announced he did not support the crucial coronavirus relief bill Congress passed earlier this week. Calling the legislation a “disgrace,” he complained that the $600 checks it included for most households were “ridiculously low” and asked Congress to increase them to $2,000.

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Echoing deceptive criticisms that have circulated online over the past couple of days, Trump also criticized the coronavirus package for including unrelated spending like foreign aid to Egypt and Belize as well as funding for Asian carp removal. “It’s called the COVID relief bill, but it has almost nothing to do with COVID,“ he said. This is blatantly misleading; what actually happened is that for procedural reasons Congress inserted the coronavirus deal into a larger end-of-the-year spending bill necessary to keep the government open, which contains money for basic government efforts like fishery management. Unfortunately, our president is fundamentally a low-information Twitter and Fox News junkie, and according to the Washington Post, some of his aides who disliked the bill used the foreign provisions “as a way to turn Trump against the measure, knowing that American money going to other countries raises the president’s ire.” History, as usual, is playing out as farce.

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The president didn’t explicitly threaten to veto the legislation, but strongly implied he would not sign it, saying that Congress should send him “a suitable bill or else the next administration will have to deliver a COVID relief package. And maybe that next administration will be me.” (I guess he’s still attempting the coup-shaped thing, despite the fact that the Electoral College has already voted.)

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In theory, lawmakers passed the COVID relief and government funding bill with enough votes to override a veto from the president. The problem is that it appears Trump could kill the legislation through a so-called pocket veto, which cannot be overturned, simply by choosing not to sign it before Congress ends its term in January. The next House and Senate would have to start over with a new bill, which could be a lengthy process.

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This would not have been a concern if Capitol Hill had actually gotten its act together and sealed a relief deal earlier. Under Article 1, Section 7 of the Constitution, the president has 10 days, not including Sundays—so basically the 18th century equivalent of 10 business days—from the time he receives a bill to either sign or veto it. After that period, the legislation automatically becomes law unless Congress has already adjourned, in which case the bill dies. The problem is that the current Congress is set to end by noon on Jan. 3, meaning that even if lawmakers sent him the bill tomorrow, they will have to adjourn before the 10-day window runs out. Trump can kill the bill permanently without lifting a finger while he sits in bed at Mar-a-Lago binging on Newsmax. (And no, Congress can’t delay the end of its term; that would require passing a law.)

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Would he actually do it? I mean, it’d be a completely bonkers decision. First off, there’s going to be a government shutdown if Trump doesn’t sign the bill by Dec. 28. Unemployment insurance programs for millions of Americans would expire. My guess is the stock market would freak. Beyond that, Trump has threatened to blow up big legislation before without following through, so the safe guess here is that he will somehow walk this back. But in the end, we’re talking about a man who just spent the past month and a half scheming to overturn an American election—you can’t necessarily assume a rational actor here.

The one upside to all of this is that Trump is now demanding a $2,000 stimulus check. Democrats have said they’ll put the idea on the floor for a vote on Thursday, and are essentially daring Republicans to block the bill.

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It seems unlikely that Republicans would actually allow a few hundred billion of extra spending after fighting tooth and nail to keep this relief bill under $1 trillion. But saying no to the extra money would put the GOP in the uncomfortable position of opposing its own president heading into the Georgia Senate runoffs, where Democrats have already attacked incumbent Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler for not being supportive enough of checks. And maybe that’s all this is about in the end—Trump getting a little political revenge on Senate Republicans who didn’t back his attempt at clinging to power. Maybe. You never know with this guy.

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