Trump belatedly joins COVID relief debate after pardoning murderers, corrupt Republicans
Like Big Brother looking out for his sycophantic supporters, Trump has made a last-minute intervention into the COVID disaster relief package debate with a disingenuous demand for bigger direct checks. Meanwhile, with a slew of new presidential pardons for criminals and political allies, Trump exposes where his true loyalties lie. | Nicole Hester / Ann Arbor News via AP

After weeks of talking about nothing but election fraud fantasies on Twitter and being AWOL when it comes to coronavirus, outgoing President Donald Trump has suddenly interjected himself back into the urgent business of the nation by threatening to torpedo the COVID disaster relief bill passed by Congress.

Trump’s swan song stand against the $900 billion package came immediately (and conveniently) after the White House had announced the president was signing a string of shameful pardons for defense contractors involved in a massacre of Iraqi civilians, corrupt Republican politicians, and others.

In a pair of Twitter videos posted the evening of Tuesday, Dec. 22, Trump relitigated his false claims that non-existent voter fraud had stolen the election from him and criticized the latest coronavirus relief measures as “a disgrace.”

“It’s called the COVID relief bill, but it has almost nothing to do with COVID,” Trump said. “Congress found plenty of money for foreign countries, lobbyists, and special interests while sending the bare minimum to the American people.”

Latecomer

Many progressives who have long demanded bigger relief checks for workers and families, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, were quick to take advantage of the gap that opened between Trump and McConnell. | @AOC via Twitter

Rattling off a list of allocations for foreign aid and museums, Trump made no distinctions between the coronavirus-specific aspects of the bill and the routine operations funding that was combined with the plan in order to keep the government from shutting down during the holidays.

Congressional leaders had attached a federal government omnibus funding bill to the COVID package in order to make it harder to for some resistant lawmakers to vote down the relief measures. This meant that some routine spending, such as for the Smithsonian Institution, was included. But it also resulted in many members of Congress adding in a lot of pork-barrel spending and money for imperial pursuits overseas as the price for their support, thus making a “clean” coronavirus package impossible.

At any rate, Trump zeroed in on the $600 individual stimulus checks, which are only half of what was distributed in the first coronavirus bill earlier in 2020 and a fraction of what progressives in Congress have been advocating. Trump did not specifically threaten to veto the new disaster package, but asked Congress to “amend this bill and increase the ridiculously low $600 to $2,000.”

Democrats, who have long been pushing for larger relief amounts, immediately seized on Trump’s belated intervention to turn up the pressure on Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who demanded cuts to coronavirus help for working-class Americans as his condition for letting the bill come to a vote.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted, “Republicans repeatedly refused to say what amount the President wanted for direct checks. At last, the President has agreed to $2,000—Democrats are ready to bring this to the Floor this week by unanimous consent.”

Progressive Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib also took advantage of the crack that opened up between Trump and McConnell. “Let’s do it,” Ocasio-Cortez said. She brought up the fact that she and Tlaib “already co-wrote the COVID amendment for $2,000 checks, so it’s ready to go. We are glad to see the President is willing to support our legislation.”

Trump’s sudden rejection of the $900 billion coronavirus relief bill appears intended to put the squeeze on Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has declined to actively support the president’s efforts to subvert the 2020 election results. | Kevin Dietsch / Pool via AP

Angered by McConnell’s refusal to openly support his efforts to overturn the election—delayed though that refusal was—Trump appears to be putting the squeeze on the Senate leader while attempting to prop up enthusiasm for himself among his dejected base. Trump first rose to prominence pledging to fight the “swamp” of Washington establishment politics, and his entry into the COVID relief debate around the issue of direct checks appears aimed at reviving that image.

His charade of fighting for struggling families and unemployed workers was shown to be disingenuous, however, by his failure to mention the much bigger problems with the disaster package. Weekly supplemental relief payments are cut to only half of what they were previously, and even the small $300 that is now coming arrives months after earlier benefits already expired. Nor did the president lash out at the short time that the unemployment aid will be made available—a paltry 11 weeks.

Trump was also silent on provisions that some tax experts are calling a $200 billion giveaway to the rich. Adam Looney, a former Treasury Department official and now an analyst with the Brookings Institution, estimates that about $120 billion of the $200 billion in tax benefits in the package will go to the top 1%. Trump neglected as well the $6.3 billion tax write-offs for big companies to host “business” meals, $2.5 billion for racecar track owners, or $5 billion for fresh military spending.

Pointing to the big corporations that collected tax-free Paycheck Protection loans and who are now getting tax write-offs for the things they paid for with the loans, Looney said, “High-income business owners have had tax benefits and unprecedented government grants showered upon them…the scale is massive.”

Over a quarter of the original Paycheck Protection Program funds went to just 1% of borrowers. Giant companies cashed in on a program that was supposedly intended to help small businesses survive and keep workers on the payroll. With these tax deductions, the corporate behemoths are back at the trough again. “The year 2020 is going to be one of the most unequal years in modern history,” Looney said.

But beyond turning the screws on McConnell and trying to preserve his populist image among supporters, Trump’s last-minute jump into the relief debate served to distract from his unconscionable pardons for a raft of criminals and corrupt allies that came on the same evening.

Abusing his power, again

Just before criticizing the $600 checks, Trump pardoned 15 criminals and commuted the sentences of five others.

When the next coronavirus disaster relief package is debated in a few weeks, at least Trump will no longer be in the White House. In this photo, staff at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in Berlin take out the trash following the 2020 U.S. election. The wax figure of outgoing President Donald Trump is in a dumpster along with other garbage. | Madame Tussauds

Among them are four former government contractors who worked for Blackwater in Iraq. They were all serving long prison sentences over their role in a 2007 massacre in Baghdad that left over a dozen Iraqi civilians dead. The case of the four murderers has long been a cause célèbre of the right wing, and Trump’s pardon of them follows a pattern set by his previous pardons of two members of the U.S. military convicted of murder, that time in Afghanistan.

Also receiving a pardon were two disgraced former Trump loyalist congressmen. Former California Rep. Duncan Hunter pleaded guilty to stealing campaign funds and spending the cash on private outings and a birthday party for his daughter. Former New York Rep. Chris Collins, Trump’s first Congressional endorser back in 2016, was sentenced to prison for using confidential government information about a failed drug trial to help his son avoid $800,000 in stock market losses.

Former Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos, who admitted lying to the FBI about his knowledge of the efforts of Russian intelligence to assist Trump in 2016 against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, also scored a pardon. As did Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan, another person sent to jail for lying about the 2016 collusion efforts.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the House Intelligence Committee chair who oversaw Trump’s impeachment, denounced the president’s pardons. “Trump is doling out pardons, not on the basis of repentance, restitution, or the interests of justice, but to reward his friends and political allies, to protect those who lie to cover up for him, to shelter those guilty of killing civilians, and to undermine an investigation that uncovered massive wrongdoing,” Schiff said.

In November, Trump pardoned another character involved in his election interference and obstruction schemes, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. And earlier in the summer, he commuted the sentence of right-wing extremist political operative Roger Stone.

These latest absolutions are installments in what is expected to be an avalanche of presidential pardons as the curtain descends on Trump’s time in the White House. Under discussion are pardons for attorney Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s children, and even Trump himself. With an administration as corrupt and criminal as his, the list of potential recipients of presidential mercy could be very long.

Waiting for real help

So as the holidays arrive, Trump puts on an act of standing up for working people over the $600 checks while, with the stroke of a pen, he abuses his power yet again for the sake of his cronies and sycophants.

And the people of the United States continue to wait for real help from the coronavirus disaster that his administration botched and the economic collapse he and Republicans allowed to happen. Millions remain jobless, over 320,000 are dead, and in a few short weeks, when this latest relief package runs out, we will be back in this same debate again.

At least by then, Donald Trump will no longer live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.


CONTRIBUTOR

C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.

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