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Under intense bipartisan pressure, President Trump on Sunday signed a sweeping coronavirus relief and spending bill — the denouement of a days-long drama over whether he would allow millions of Americans to endure a devastating cut to unemployment benefits and force a chaotic shutdown of the federal government in the final weeks of his administration.
The abrupt reversal by the president, ensconced at his Florida resort, came as converging crises of COVID-19, economic suffering, the looming government shutdown and Trump’s ongoing fight to overturn the election drew expressions of alarm from lawmakers. One Republican senator voiced worry earlier in the day that the departing president could leave a legacy of “chaos, misery and erratic behavior” if he failed to sign the measure.
In a White House statement announcing his action, Trump said it was his “responsibility to protect the people of our country from the economic devastation and hardship that was caused by” the coronavirus. He clearly signed the bill grudgingly, saying he would send a “redlined” version to Congress seeking the removal of some spending from the legislation.
The measure renews enhanced jobless benefits that have been a lifeline for those thrown out of work by the still-raging pandemic, and provides funding for distributing the COVID-19 vaccines. It also keeps the government afloat for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends in September,averting what otherwise would have been a shutdown starting Tuesday.
Prior to the bill-signing, Trump had spent much of the day golfing and lashing out at members of his own party even as millions of people lost enhanced unemployment benefits. His refusal to sign the bill that Congress passed last week by overwhelming majorities followed a familiar pattern of self-generated turmoil, in which the president again undercut senior aides and blindsided Republican allies.
Trump had delegated negotiations on the legislation, months in the making, to his Treasury secretary, Steven T. Mnuchin, who earlier told lawmakers the president intended to sign it. But on Tuesday, a day after the measure was approved, Trump termed it a “disgrace” and said direct payments to taxpayers should be more than three times larger.
“I just gave up guessing” what the president might do next, Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said on ABC’s “This Week” as bipartisan calls, led by Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, mounted earlier Sunday for presidential action on the bill.
Hogan, who has been critical of Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 332,000 Americans, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the president “should have weighed in eight months ago” if he wanted bigger stimulus checks included in the relief measure he was now excoriating.
“Sign the bill — get it done,” the governor urged.
Trump for days ignored such appeals, remaining singularly focused on his grievances. When he wasn’t attacking the courts, the FBI, the Justice Department and Republican senators for failing to support his baseless claims of widespread election fraud, the president was unleashing a barrage of tweets criticizing the bill.
Before leaving town for the holidays, Trump demanded that direct payments to U.S. taxpayers be increased from $600 to $2,000, with some separate spending eliminated.
In an appearance earlier in the day on “Fox News Sunday,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) warned that unless Trump swiftly signed the stimulus bill, he would be “remembered for chaos and misery and erratic behavior” in his last days in the White House.
“You don’t get everything you want, even if you’re president of the United States,” Toomey said. “We’ve got a bill right now that his administration helped negotiate. I think we ought to get that done.”
Democrats reacted with enthusiasm to Trump’s demand that Congress boost direct payments. They have pointed out that if Trump really wants such an increase, it could be dealt with quickly in a separate measure, which they will seek to put forward in the House on Monday.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” called Trump “pathologically narcissistic” for failing to sign the existing legislation.
“What the president is doing right now is unbelievably cruel,” Sanders said. “Many millions of people are losing their unemployment benefits. They’re going to be evicted.”
President-elect Joe Biden, who takes over Jan. 20, on Saturday said Trump’s then-refusal to sign the legislation was an “abdication of responsibility,” with especially painful consequences in a holiday season.
“It is the day after Christmas, and millions of families don’t know if they’ll be able to make ends meet because of President Donald Trump’s refusal to sign an economic relief bill approved by Congress with an overwhelming and bipartisan majority,” the president-elect said in a statement.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, meanwhile, condemned as a “scam” the fundraising associated with Trump’s continuing efforts to nullify the Nov. 3 election. After losing dozens of legal bids to contravene Biden’s victory, the president has been strategizing with some congressional Republicans over ways to overturn the electoral college results, which are to be certified in a Jan. 6 joint session of Congress.
“They’re raising money on this,” Kinzinger said on “State of the Union” of the more than $200 million raised in response to appeals to help contest the vote. “It is a scam,” he added, one that will “disappoint the people that believe this election was stolen, that think this is an opportunity to change it.”
Kinzinger also called Trump’s veto last week of a defense spending measure “nonsensical” and said he could not understand how Republican colleagues who supported the bill might now reverse themselves at the president’s behest, making it impossible to override the veto.
“I do not know how you justify that besides saying, ‘I’m just going to do what the president wants,’” Kinzinger said.
The tumult in Washington comes against the backdrop of what is already the pandemic’s deadliest month.
The country’s top infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said on “State of the Union” that, even with the vaccine rollout in progress, it will take time to blunt the coronavirus’ deadly momentum. California last week became the first state to top 2 million cases of the virus, with a death toll approaching 25,000.
Fauci, who will continue to serve in the incoming administration, said, “I share the concern of President-elect Biden that, as we get into the next few weeks” the nationwide outlook “might actually get worse.”
Trump’s surgeon general, Jerome Adams, appearing on “This Week,” concurred, saying he was “very concerned” about a surge in the wake of the year-end holidays.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.