On state aid, Trump sees 'another opportunity for a shakedown'

Trump might be willing to help states and cities, but he believes he's entitled to "get something" in exchange for doing the right thing.
Image: President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump during the Coronavirus Task Force news conference at the White House on April 13, 2020.Yuri Gripas / Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters yesterday she expects an upcoming economic aid package to include $1 trillion for state and local governments. While that's obviously a massive federal investment, it's hardly outlandish: we're already seeing "dramatic reductions" to public-sector workforces, pushing unemployment higher, weakening the economy, and reducing services countless families rely on.

A reporter asked Donald Trump yesterday for his assessment of Pelosi's vision. The president responded by complaining for a while about "Democrat states" and his belief that Republican officials may have a superior "mentality." Eventually, however, he sent a not-so-subtle signal.

"We're going to take a look at it. I think we want to take a little bit of a pause. But if we do that, we'll have to get something for it," Trump said.

Right off the bat, his criticisms of "Democrat states" and celebrations of the GOP "mentality" are as pointless as they are wrong. As a New York Times analysis noted the other day, Trump has a "knack for detonating so many of our powerful shared experiences into us-versus-them grenades." The piece added that the president has repeatedly "exhibited minimal interest in the tradition of national strife placing a pause upon the usual smallness of politics."

For that matter, the idea that red states aren't facing fiscal crises is demonstrably ridiculous.

It's also unsettling to see Trump voice support for "a little bit of a pause" in talks over economic policymaking. As the White House really ought to know, the economy is falling off a cliff right now. More than 30 million Americans have lost their jobs since mid-March; we're not yet halfway through an economic quarter that will be the worst Americans have seen since the Great Depression; and public-sector layoffs at the state and local level are ongoing. These conditions do not call out for a "pause."

But perhaps the most striking element of Trump's posture is the extortion model: the Republican might be willing to help states and cities, but he believes he's entitled to "get something" in exchange for doing the right thing.

And what might "something" be? The president suggested this week that he has "sanctuary city adjustments" in mind, despite their irrelevance to the crisis.

As we've discussed, this entire posture is indefensible. In every possible sense, it's in Trump's interest to rescue states and municipalities that are facing brutal crises through no fault of their own. Democrats shouldn't have to beg and/or reward the president with political treats; he should be desperate to make the investments.

As the New York Times' Paul Krugman told Rachel on the show this week, Trump's posture is "basically insane."

The Washington Post's Catherine Rampell had a great column along these lines overnight, explaining, "A more public-service-oriented president might view a viral pandemic as a time to prioritize saving lives and providing services and funds wherever needed. But to President Trump, the coronavirus outbreak is just another opportunity for a shakedown."