Putting his name on aid checks, Trump prioritizes public relations

"You've got to put your name on stuff," Trump said two years ago. He's clearly embraced this principle with a bit too much enthusiasm.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump signs the coronavirus stimulus relief package, at the White House on March 27, 2020, as from left, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., House Minority Kevin McCarthy of Calif., and Vice President Mike Pence, look on.Evan Vucci / AP
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By Steve Benen

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mailed a coronavirus advisory to many U.S. households last month, the front of the large postcard read, "President Trump's Coronavirus Guidelines For America" in all-capital letters. It wasn't long before some questioned whether the mailing was intended, at least in part, to help promote Donald Trump.

As we discussed soon after, it was on the heels of the CDC mailing that the Wall Street Journal reported on the president telling aides that he "wants his signature to appear on the direct payment checks that will go out to many Americans in the coming weeks." The article quoted a former senior Treasury Department official saying that, under normal circumstances, "a civil servant -- the disbursing officer for the payment center -- would sign federal checks."

Evidently, Trump didn't much care, reinforcing impressions that he continued to see the pandemic crisis though a public-relations lens.

Two weeks after that reporting, it appears the president is getting his wish -- sort of.

Paper checks of coronavirus relief payments approved by Congress to be sent to Americans will have President Donald Trump's name printed on them, a Treasury Department official has confirmed to NBC News. It won't be a signature, but "President Donald J. Trump" will be printed on the fronts of the checks, the Treasury official confirmed.

Why won't the checks bear Trump's signature? According to a Washington Post report, the president "is not an authorized signer for legal disbursements by the U.S. Treasury." But since Trump obviously wants to use the checks to promote himself, officials are adding his name anyway, apparently on the bottom-left.

There are some practical questions hanging over the process. The Post's report, for example, added that senior IRS officials believe adding the president's name to the checks "could slow their delivery by a few days." The Treasury Department told NBC News this part of the story is untrue.

But while this relevant detail hasn't yet come into sharp focus, the larger point remains the same: for the first time, a disbursement from the Internal Revenue Service will feature the name of the sitting president -- not for any practical reason, but because the president sees a political opportunity.

Stories like these are striking, but they're not surprising. Two years ago this month, Trump toured Mount Vernon with French President Emmanuel Macron and made the argument that George Washington was insufficiently focused on branding when naming his Virginia estate.

"If [George Washington] was smart, he would've put his name on it," Trump said, according to three sources. "You've got to put your name on stuff."

The Republican has clearly embraced this principle with a bit too much enthusiasm.

As for the checks themselves, the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, signed into law three weeks ago, includes several key elements intended to help individual Americans, including these direct payments. As we've discussed, these are $1,200 payments -- with an additional $500 per child under the age of 17 -- that will go to Americans with an annual income up to $75,000.

The value of payments will decrease from there -- subtract $5 for every $100 in income above $75,000 -- before capping out at $99,000. As NBC News' report added the phase-out range for married couples is $150,000 to $198,000.

These direct payments are not based on employment status: those who qualify will get the money, whether they're fully employed or not.

Those with direct-deposit information on file with the IRS may start to see the money as early as this week. Those receiving checks -- with Trump's name on them -- will have to wait longer, though the Treasury Department said the first round of checks will start going out by mail next week.