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Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump signs executive actions for economic relief during a news conference amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., on Aug. 8, 2020.Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Trump's new executive actions aren't quite what they appear to be

Trump's new actions are based on a highly dubious legal authority, do very little to help those in need, and will have a negligible effect on the economy.

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In recent weeks, as negotiations over the latest economic aid package unraveled, the White House made little effort to hide its Plan B: Donald Trump would respond to failed talks by taking executive action. Over the weekend, the public finally got a good look at what the president and his team had in mind.

President Donald Trump signed four executive actions Saturday for coronavirus economic relief, upending negotiations with Congress after lawmakers failed to reach a deal on Friday.... The actions, which Trump announced in a news conference at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, came after talks with Democrats over another round of assistance hit an impasse Friday.

The president specifically boasted that he was signing "some bills" -- none of which were actually bills -- that he said would "take care of, pretty much, this entire situation."

If only it were that simple.

At first blush, the politics of this, if nothing else, seems to make quite a bit of sense. As CARES Act benefits expire, leaving tens of millions of families facing dire economic conditions, Trump will no doubt claim that he's taking bold, albeit unilateral, action. If lawmakers file suit to block his legally dubious power-grab, the president will almost certainly argue that Congress is standing in the way of the White House delivering aid to struggling Americans.

At least, that's what the tweets and talking points will likely say.

A more reality-based look at the latest developments, however, reveals that Trump's actions aren't quite what they appear to be.

Take the supplements for the unemployed, for example. Under the CARES Act, jobless Americans were getting $600 per week, on top of benefits made available at the state level. With that aid having expired, Democrats have been fighting to keep the $600 weekly payments going for the rest of the year, while Republicans have demanded it be cut to $200. Trump claims to be splitting the difference, using $44 billion in FEMA money to send $400 weekly checks.

But read the fine print in the presidential memorandum: Trump wants to set up a new "lost wages assistance program" in which the federal government will pay for $300 in weekly checks, with the expectation that states will pitch in the other $100. What happens in states that can't afford that? What happens if FEMA needs that money during hurricane season? How will this new "lost wages assistance program" be created and administered?

For now, the White House doesn't seem eager to delve into these questions, which has predictably led to widespread confusion. Trump did say on Saturday, however, that "it's not a hardship" for struggling families to see their $600 federal weekly supplement slashed in half. He struggled to explain why, saying only that the reduced benefit is what unemployed Americans "need" and "want," adding, "and this gives them a great incentive to go back to work."

On a separate issue, Trump also said over the weekend, "I'm protecting people from eviction. Yet you've been hearing a lot about eviction, and the Democrats don't want to do anything having to do with protecting people from eviction."

Substantively, this was gibberish. The Democratic plan, which was approved in mid-May, included unambiguous eviction protections. Trump's new executive order, however, doesn't include an eviction moratorium, doesn't include funds to help Americans pay mortgages or rent, and simply asks relevant agencies to "consider whether any measures temporarily halting residential evictions of any tenants for failure to pay rent are reasonably necessary."

In other words, instead of actual protections, Trump issued an order asking administration officials to see if there's something they can do. A Politico analysis added, "President Donald Trump’s vow to protect millions of Americans from the threat of eviction has one serious shortcoming: It would do nothing to help the vast majority of the country’s tenants."

Perhaps most importantly, the president suggested he's also creating a payroll tax cut. He's not. As NBC News' report explained, "The payroll-tax memo defers rather than eliminates them, which means the government could choose to collect the money at a later date. Nothing in the order requires employers to stop withholding the tax, which is earmarked to pay for Social Security and Medicare, and it is not clear how many will do so, considering that all the money may have to be paid back."

Or put another way, those in the workforce might get a little extra money in their paychecks -- the unemployed would get nothing, since they're not receiving any paychecks -- but those Americans will be expected to pay that money back several months from now. Business leaders quickly found themselves unsure how, or even whether, to proceed.

Trump added that he intends to eliminate the payroll tax altogether if he's re-elected, but in practical terms, that means the Republican is simply vowing to eliminate the revenue stream for Social Security.

So, let's take stock. Trump, who refused to get involved in policy negotiations, traveled over the weekend to a private golf club he owns and profits from, and signed some executive actions (one executive order and three executive memos). Those actions, based on a highly dubious legal authority, do very little to help those in need, will have a negligible effect on the economy, and fail to provide the very protections the president claimed to be extending to vulnerable families.

It's a decidedly post-policy approach to a pressing challenge that requires real governance.

Postscript: For what it's worth, redirecting FEMA money to other priorities is an idea literally featured in season three of the American version of House of Cards -- a fictional show about a dangerous sociopath who makes it to the Oval Office without having earned it.