It was a week of big reversals and disappointing defeats for President Donald Trump, whose bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic has contributed to his trailing badly in the polls behind presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Trump made a surprise announcement on Thursday that he was pulling the plug on the GOP nominating convention in Jacksonville, Florida, after insisting for months that the major gathering would take place in person against the advice of public health experts. Democrats had announced months ago that they would be holding a nearly all-virtual convention next month in Milwaukee due to the spread of COVID-19.
“It’s not the right time. It’s really something that for me, I have to protect the American people,” Trump said at a White House press conference, standing next to a large map of the U.S. showing the surge in new coronavirus infections across Sun Belt states like Florida.
“The country is in very good shape other than if you look south or west. Some problems. That’ll all work out,” Trump added of a nation with over 4 million confirmed coronavirus cases and nearly 150,000 deaths.
It’s the second time Trump has had to cancel the public portion of the Republican convention, which was supposed to feature thousands of delegates and guests. The president moved it from its original site ― Charlotte, North Carolina ― in June because that state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, refused to waive social distancing and mask-wearing rules.
The latest announcement came just days after officials in Jacksonville, including the local sheriff’s department, expressed “significant concerns with the viability of the event,” and some senior GOP lawmakers said they would not attend.
Trump also suffered several defeats on Capitol Hill this week, where lawmakers are struggling to hammer out a deal on another economic relief package to help Americans suffering amid the ongoing pandemic, including those who are unemployed or can’t afford to pay their rent and other bills on time.
Enhanced unemployment benefits of $600 that Congress created in March are due to expire by the end of July. The main factor holding up negotiations with Democrats to extend those payments are disagreements among Senate Republicans and the White House about how and whether to do so. Democrats want a full extension of the $600 weekly payments. Republicans prefer extending them at a lower level of $100 to $300 per week.
“The administration has requested additional time to review the fine details,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday of the forthcoming GOP proposal, which is expected to be unveiled next week.
What will not be included in the GOP package is a payroll tax cut ― one of Trump’s biggest priorities, which he has repeatedly urged Congress to enact. The idea has little support within the Senate Republican conference despite the president’s monthslong insistence, largely due to its projected cost and the optics associated with cutting one of the main drivers of revenue for Social Security and Medicare.
But Trump sought to pin the blame for his embarrassing defeat on that issue on the Democrats, saying Republicans “didn’t want to ask for it” because Democrats in the House and Senate were opposed.
If that’s the standard actually controlling congressional negotiations (it’s not), Republicans might as well drop every other demand they have that Democrats aren’t enthused about ― like, say, pandemic liability protections for businesses, hospitals and schools. Democrats are worried that an added shield from lawsuits would give corporations legal immunity even when people are forced to work in unsafe conditions.
In another loss for the president, the House and Senate both passed a provision in their versions of the annual defense spending bill that calls for renaming 10 military bases that honor Confederate officers ― a provision over which Trump has threatened to veto the must-pass legislation. The provision cleared both legislative chambers with veto-proof majorities, however, meaning there’s little the president can do about it except stoke another culture war in hopes of bolstering his reelection chances, which might be his ultimate goal anyway.
Trump sought to soften the blow on Friday by suggesting that Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who also opposes the provision, will somehow strip it out in conference negotiations between the House and Senate. But with overwhelming support for the legislation in both chambers and the House under Democratic control, there’s likely little Inhofe can do.
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