Trump's threat plunges COVID talks - and GOP - into tumult

Jonathan Lemire and Jill Colvin
Associated Press

Washington — The video message that plunged Washington into chaos was filmed in secret.

President Donald Trump stood in the White House's Diplomatic Reception Room, holiday garland and gleaming ornaments draped on the fireplace behind him, and spoke into the camera not to deliver warm Christmas wishes, but to threaten to detonate Congress’ $900 billion COVID-19 relief and year-end package.

The video was released without warning Tuesday night, its recording orchestrated by White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and kept from all but a handful of aides. Few Republicans or even White House staffers knew Wednesday what Trump planned next, a return to the around-the-clock chaos of his first months in office and a flashback to the 2015 launch of his political career when he delivered direct assaults on GOP leadership and aimed to blow up the party’s establishment.

The message served as a broadside launched at his fellow Republicans, a warning that Trump stood poised to burn it all down before he leaves office, potentially sabotaging his party’s chances of controlling the Senate as he lashed out in anger at those he believes have not supported his efforts to overturn the election. And the threat revived fears of a federal government shutdown and potentially denying benefits to Americans grappling with a raging pandemic and deep economic uncertainty.

All but abandoning his responsibilities as chief executive, save for using his presidential powers to issue pardons for political allies and those he believes wronged by his foes, Trump has holed up in the White House with an ever-shrinking circle of aides. He has ignored the surging pandemic that is killing 3,000 Americans a day and done next to nothing to promote the use of the vaccines that are being counted on to bring it to an end.

Trump’s focus instead has solely been on trying to overturn his defeat to President-elect Joe Biden, embracing baseless conspiracy theories, pushing futile legal challenges and undermining confidence in the tenets of American democracy and the peaceful transfer of power.

“There are mixed signals from the White House leaving more confusion than calm,” said Biden on Wednesday as he pushed for passage of the hard-fought bipartisan COVID relief bill.

Trump’s latest effort to subvert the election came Tuesday night, when he released two videos, one falsely declaring that he won the election in a “landslide” and the other calling on lawmakers to increase direct payments for most Americans from $600 to $2,000 for individuals and $4,000 for couples, measures most Republicans strongly oppose.

“I am also asking Congress to immediately get rid of the wasteful and unnecessary items from this legislation, and to send me a suitable bill, or else the next administration will have to deliver a COVID relief package, and maybe that administration will be me,” Trump said.

The president, who has not held a public event in 10 days, was scheduled to depart Wednesday afternoon for more than a week at Mar-a-Lago, his coastal Florida estate. But aides were uncertain if Trump would follow through or cancel just hours before Air Force One was to take off.

The video on the relief bill was released after the White House had sent signals that the president would sign it and after Trump’s lead negotiator, Treasure Secretary Steve Mnuchin, had taken a victory lap over its presumed adoption.

Trump’s threat put Republicans, many of whom stuck out their necks to vote for the measure, in a difficult position, and threatened to throw the party into disarray.

The president had raged all week that he felt like more Republicans were abandoning him and refusing to fight, turning to his ever-shrinking inner circle to blast Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican whip Sen. John Thune, both of whom recently recognized Biden’s win.

He also complained to allies in recent days that Vice President Mike Pence, who by any measure has spent four years demonstrating loyalty to Trump, was not doing enough to defend him. And he said he was pleased by the departure of Attorney General William Barr, who had not supported his calls for a special counsel to look into election fraud.

This was far from the first time Trump pulled a sudden about-face on a major deal; he previously allowed the government to shut down in a fight over funding for his border wall. But the timing made it particularly damaging for Republicans and added yet another complication to the political paths of the two GOP senators fighting to keep their seats in next month’s runoff elections in Georgia, races that will determine control of the chamber.

A view of the White House, Tuesday in Washington.

Trump never used the word “veto” in the video but the threat was implicit. But while the Senate could have the votes to override a veto, such a move would further risk alienating Trump voters who will be needed by Republicans in future elections.

Aides believed that fighting to put more money in the hands of average Americans could boost his popularity and populist credentials for his election fight and, more importantly, for whatever his potential next move might be, including a possible 2024 candidacy.

Democrats seized upon the Republican’s predicament. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged Trump in a Wednesday tweet to “sign the bill to keep government open!” The final text of the more than 5,000-page bill was still being prepared by Congress and was not expected to be sent to the White House for Trump’s signature before Thursday or Friday.

Following Trump’s threat, Pelosi all but dared his Republican allies in Congress to meet the demand for far higher direct payments. She said she would offer the proposal for a vote on Thursday.

Trump had previously played little role in the stimulus negotiations, instead sequestering in near-isolation in the White House.

He has pushed congressional allies to snarl the certification of Biden’s victory in early January and has paid attention to attorneys Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, both promoting election conspiracy theories.

But while he has also listened to his former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s push to declare martial law, he rebuked aides who urged him to denounce Russia for likely perpetrating a vast breach of U.S. government agencies.

And while he has disengaged from any response to the sweeping pandemic, he did use the powers of the office when, just an hour before the release of his video, he pardoned 15 people, including a pair of congressional Republicans who were strong and early supporters, a 2016 campaign official ensnared in the Russia probe and former government contractors convicted in a 2007 massacre in Baghdad.

Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writer Lisa Mascaro contributed reporting from Washington.