Trump Just Killed the Stimulus Talks. Is He Out of His Mind?

Donald Trump removes his mask while standing on a White House balcony
In another questionable decision, President Donald Trump removed his mask upon returning to the White House on Monday.* Win McNamee/Getty Images

Jim Newell: Jordan. This afternoon, our president, a quasi-human sack of coronaviruses and steroids, tweeted that he had instructed his staff to stop negotiating with Democrats on a stimulus package until after the election and to instead focus on the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

Here’s the full thread:

The stock market, which had been propped up by distant hopes of a stimulus deal, immediately plummeted. The malpractice, for a guy who’s already facing the worst deficit in a presidential race since Bob Dole in 1996, is staggering to me. It’s not like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin were on the precipice of a deal, but they were making marginal progress. I guess, what strikes you as most incredible here? That he’s willingly crashing the stock market and the economy a few weeks before Election Day? That he’s assigning himself direct blame for the collapse in negotiations by announcing that he has ended them? That he’s boosting Democrats’ message that Republicans are too focused on ramming through a SCOTUS nominee instead of fixing the economy? That his tweet about the stock market being at record levels sent markets spiraling? Where do we begin with this?

Jordan Weissmann: I think we need to begin by appreciating just what an utter disaster this could be for the country, if the president actually sticks to his guns once the dexamethasone wears off and Mnuchin gently tries to explain that he’s just blasted another gaping hole into his reelection prospects. (I mean, what’s the message here? DON’T LOOK AT YOUR 401(K)! VOTE!)

Right now, Trump appears overwhelmingly likely to lose. And if he does, the chances of Republicans passing any sort of relief bill during the lame-duck session are roughly on par with the likelihood of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell breaking into song and performing the soundtrack of Dear Evan Hansen on the Senate floor. It’s just a zero-probability event.

Meanwhile, the economy is already running on fumes. Rehiring has slowed. Major companies like airlines and Disney are laying off thousands and thousands of workers. Small businesses are tapping out. Winter is coming, and when it does, it’s is going to kill outdoor dining and drinking in much of the country. Without more aid, we are potentially heading for a grinding, frigid, economically disastrous transition period that will leave the country with long-lasting, very gnarly scars.

So, with those stakes in mind: The politics of this are just absolutely astounding to me. It seems like someone has decided that Trump is going to lose this race and wants to kneecap the Biden administration on its way in the door. But there’s no conceivable way Trump himself has made that calculation, because he thinks he’s indestructible. So what do you think is going on?

Jim: Well, the last floated offer from the administration was $1.6 trillion, with Pelosi looking for about $2 trillion. It’s unlikely McConnell had a majority of his Republicans on board for even the $1.6 trillion, because of both the price tag and the policy within. He certainly wouldn’t have had it for $2 trillion. So there’s been some speculation that maybe McConnell told Trump he wouldn’t put a $1.6 to $2.0 trillion bill on the floor. What I don’t understand about this theory, though, is why Trump would listen to McConnell. Tell him that he’s going to cut a deal and if McConnell doesn’t put it on the floor, he’ll blame McConnell for the inaction. It seems like the precise sort of move, for a popular piece of legislation, that a politician who’s hemorrhaging swing voters could use.

But Trump is hemorrhaging swing voters for a reason: He’s only capable of playing base politics, and he can’t resist what he believes is a power move of sticking it to Pelosi and owning the libs by focusing on ACB’s confirmation.

Do you think, though, once he sees the market, that he’ll find some way out of this and permit negotiations to continue?

Jordan: My concerns are twofold: One is that we’re assuming the market will keep dropping. That seems like the safe bet to me, but it’s always possible investors will find some optimistic narrative that stabilizes things a bit and the carnage won’t be terrible enough to budge Trump. (I still think the politics would be pretty miserable for him, but not *as* miserable, and not in the visceral way he feels whenever the Dow drops.)

My second fear is that ever since he returned from the hospital, Trump has been in single-minded own-the-libs mode. It’s like he nearly died at Walter Reed and the doctors rebuilt him slower, dimmer, and more vindictive than ever before.

Do you see any indication that we are currently dealing with a rational actor?

Jim: It seems like a more acute episode of the irrationality that’s plagued his entire administration, which is that base politics alone is all he needs, since he won that way in 2016. It may not occur to him until too late that his 2016 model was a fluke. This is only rational if, as you said earlier, he’s hoping to kneecap the Biden presidency. But, as you also said earlier, there’s no way he thinks he can lose. It gives me a little trepidation about the transition period if he does lose, when he’ll openly announce his plan to kneecap the Biden presidency.

Or maybe it’s simpler than that: He’s just trying to change the news cycle from him having COVID-19 because it makes him look “weak,” and he’ll do anything.

Jordan: Just to play devil’s advocate …

Over at the Washington Post, Erica Werner and Jeff Stein point out that Art Laffer visited Trump a week ago and told him more spending would be bad for the economy.*

We also know that White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is essentially anti-stimulus. His stock might be down a bit after his communications screw-ups this weekend, but there are a lot of conservatives in Trump’s orbit who genuinely oppose spending on ideological grounds. Maybe they just finally won him over? Or got lucky and were the last ones to talk to him before he decided to start tweeting?

Jim: I understand the competing ideological voices in his ear. I just don’t get how that is distilled into the horrendous message of “I AM ENDING TALKS.”

Jordan: He might as well have added “I want you to use my words against me.”

OK, here’s another potential take (if you can’t tell, my mind is racing a bit here): What if this is a bona fide negotiating strategy? What if Trump isn’t ’roided up and flipping over a checkers board, but is genuinely trying to play chess?

A lot of Democrats (and liberal pundits like me) were convinced Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer could play hardball on stimulus, because there was no goddamn way Trump was going to imperil his reelection chances. Up until his brush with mortality, he seemed to get that spending was crucial for the economy (hence his decision to unsuccessfully MacGyver an unemployment program on the fly when the original $600 a week ran out).

But now that’s he’s credibly threatening to incinerate the fields and salt the earth, even if it costs him votes, maybe Democrats will back down on their demands, and he can get a minimalist stimulus that doesn’t require him to give money to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to fix their budget holes.

Jim: Ha! If the election plays out the way it’s looking like it will, Pelosi and Schumer are going to write a $3 trillion bill on their own terms in January without Republican input. I don’t think they’ll cave to anything now, and I don’t think they believe they messed up their strategy.

Jordan: Except for the fact that the country is about to experience four months of economic misery.

Also, I know Democrats are feeling good right now, but imagine just for a second what happens if they don’t take the Senate.

I mean, their chances at a majority at this point appear to hinge on a lamer, less sexy John Edwards.

Jim: What do you think Democrats should do right now? Take the $1.6 trillion?

I think that is a defensible position, and many Dems would be happy with that. I just don’t know what other option Pelosi and Schumer have right now if the economic wreckage is too great to wait until January.

Jordan: It’d probably still depend a little on the specifics of the deal. But there are versions of a $1.6 trillion agreement that could probably work.

One thing that’s become apparent since May, when all this began, is that state and local governments are probably going to need less aid than people originally thought. They still need a bunch, but the numbers are much less gaudy than before, if you believe forecasts from folks like Brookings.

Jim: But I do think “hardball,” if that’s the thing that people are consistently asking Democratic leaders for more of, involves allowing your opponent to dig his own grave even if it comes with significant collateral damage.

Jordan: Democrats have wanted to paint Donald Trump as a dumber Herbert Hoover. And he’s doing absolutely everything within his power to make that historical comparison accurate.

Update — October 6, 2020, 11:50 PM:

On Tuesday night, Trump seemed to reverse his stance a bit. First, he retweeted a CNBC article about Federal Reserve Chair Central Jerome Powell’s testimony before Congress, during which he urged additional relief spending, and told lawmakers there was little risk of “overdoing it.” “True!” the president added. Afterwards, Trump began frantically tweeting out individual pieces of the relief bill he’d like Congress to pass, including money for airlines, extra paycheck protection program funding, and another round of $1,200 checks. Urging lawmakers to break up the legislation into individual pieces so the White House can pick the parts it wants to enact a la carte is a strategy Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has apparently advocated for a while, and it’s never been particularly realistic. Is Trump panicking? Is he trying to cover his ass politically? Is he in the midst of a steroid induced mania that he’ll remember as a faint dream come the morning? Who is to say.

Correction, Oct. 6, 2020: Due to an editing error, this piece originally misspelled Erica Werner’s last name and the caption initially misstated that the photo was taken on Tuesday. The photo was taken on Monday.