Opinion: Trump’s “executive noodlings”

Who needs the Constitution when you have executive suggestions?

The news conference was vintage Donald Trump, and I don’t mean that in a good way. What I mean is, the insanity of the moment just got that much crazier.

After insulting Democrats, after saying they care only about bailing out states and cities run by Democrats (you know, like Colorado and Denver), after doing his Crazy Nancy and Sleepy Joe and Crying Chuck bit, after saying his opponents must not “love America” and were trying to “steal the election,” Trump finally got to the point.

Speaking to reporters as well as a peanut-gallery crowd who pay something more than peanuts (reportedly a six-figure initiation fee) to belong to his pricey Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club, Trump announced that he had basically resolved the momentary crisis facing many Americans by circumventing Congress to sign four executive orders, three of which were apparently technically memoranda.

This “circumventing Congress” thing is not just so much politics. It’s also about that document called the Constitution, which, as every high school graduate should know, gives Congress the power to set tax and spending policy. I know that most congressional Republicans understand this — most will tell you they carry around a pocket-sized Constitution with them at all times — and so certainly we can expect to hear them insist that the president has overstepped his powers.

All I can say is, if anyone hears from Cory Gardner on this, please let me know. He might take note of what columnist (and former Bush speechwriter) David Frum tweeted, that since “Trump has no legal authority to do most of these things, more accurate to call them Executive Suggestions or Executive Noodlings than Executive Orders.”

As I write this on Saturday, I haven’t yet seen the actual wording of the Noodlings, but from what I heard Trump say and from what I read, one would provide unemployed Americans with $400 added to their unemployment checks, rather than the $600 that the expired law had allowed. The states — most of which have no funds to spend — would pay a quarter of the $400 amount. The rest of the money would be redirected apparently from unused FEMA money. Sound legal to you? (If, by the way, the states don’t come up with the hundred bucks, the unemployment checks would be only $300 a week.)

And then Trump wants to defer payroll tax payments for those who earn less than $100,000. Of course employers pay half of that, and it’s unclear, since eventually they’d have to take big money out of workers’ paychecks to repay the deferred cost, whether they’d want to do that. But Trump said, if re-elected, he’d forgive the debt, and more than that, he’d like to make the cuts permanent, which causes one to wonder what would happen to Social Security and Medicare. Some Democrats are already saying this could be a backdoor way of attacking one or both.

In any case, despite what Trump said, most Democrats and Republicans in Congress — even the ones who do love America — think the payroll tax deferment is a terrible idea. As for Noodling legality, the judges will have to decide.

What we don’t need a judge to tell us — with the coronavirus killing around a thousand Americans a day, with more than 160,000 dead to this point, with Congress unable to come close to an agreement, with Trump pretending he, alone, can fix it — is that the craziness of the moment is almost too much to take. It’s no wonder that Michelle Obama says she is suffering from low-level depression.

If you watched the news conference — after which Trump also signed orders, which he called bills, covering evictions and student loan relief (good things if done properly) — you’d have been depressed to hear Trump making so much wishful-thinking happy talk about the economy and about the coronavirus. On Friday, he was once again saying the virus would soon disappear. I guess he expects us to forget that his once-favored infectious disease expert, Deborah Birx, had just told us the pandemic was in a “new phase” and is spreading rapidly, especially to those places that hadn’t been hit hard before. Trump, naturally, called her “pathetic.” Certainly he can do better than Pathetic Deborah.

It’s easy enough to blame this on Congress, but Senate Republicans weren’t even involved in the negotiations. The president also kept his social distance. Instead he sent Steve Mnuchin and Mark Meadows to make a deal. House Democrats, who had passed a $3 trillion bill months ago, did reduce their offer by a trillion dollars. Republicans, who had proposed a $1 trillion bill, didn’t move.

Most Senate Republicans remained mum, presumably as they will now. As one Republican strategist told the L.A. Times, “Congressional Republicans don’t want to cross Trump, but they also don’t want to carry his water.”

[pullquote-1-center] So, where does that leave us?

It was just Thursday that Trump was basically conceding that a rush to find a vaccine was, in part, to help his reelection chances. And yet, many who study these things say a vaccine that would be ready as soon as Nov. 3 could in no way be sufficiently tested either for how well it works or for how long it works or how safely it works. And I’d expect that many people wouldn’t trust it and therefore, even if it does work, won’t take it. A vaccine shouldn’t be political, just as wearing a mask shouldn’t be political. But there we are.

It doesn’t help most parents figure out whether it’s safe to send their kids to school or not. It doesn’t get any less confusing when Cherry Creek plans to reopen with in-person learning and Denver opens its school year virtually. Is any parent out there, with kids in either system, not stressed? How many mothers — isn’t it nearly always the mothers? — are facing the choice between staying home with their kids or losing their jobs?

As Trump stood up there cracking jokes, with laughter heard from his country-club pals, I kept thinking of the friend who keeps sending me texts asking why more people aren’t freaking. And another friend who texts me each time the polls move a millimeter. And texts from my former teacher and education professor sister that tell me each time Trump does something outrageous. How else would I know about yo-Semite and Thigh-land?

Meanwhile, the University of Washington forecasters — remember them? — say we could hit 300,000 deaths by December, when the cold weather will have returned to much of the country. The report also says that as many as half of the new deaths would be prevented if we could only get 95 percent of people to wear masks.

That’s how serious the craziness is at this point. Of course Michelle Obama is feeling a little depressed. After watching Trump’s weekend news conferences, I can’t imagine meeting anyone who isn’t.

Mike Littwin’s column was produced for The Colorado Sun, a reader-supported news organization committed to covering the people, places and policies of Colorado. Learn more at coloradosun.com.