White House 'clarifies' Trump's false promise on unemployment aid

"So we're all set up," Trump said of unemployment aid. "It's $400 per week." Yesterday, the White House "clarified" that it's not actually $400 per week.
Image: Unemployment
People wait in line for help with unemployment benefits at the One-Stop Career Center, on March 17, 2020, in Las Vegas.John Locher / AP
By Steve Benen

When the CARES Act was approved in March, Democrats successfully fought for a key provision: $600 per week in supplemental aid to the uninsured. This money helped keep millions of struggling families' heads above water as the coronavirus crisis took its toll on the economy.

Two weeks ago, at the insistence of Republicans who said the benefit created a disincentive to work, the aid expired.

Over the weekend, however, Donald Trump unveiled a plan that he said will "take care of, pretty much, this entire situation." Specifically, the president announced, "I'm taking action to provide an additional or an extra $400 per week in expanded benefits: $400. Okay? So, that's generous, but we want to take care of our people." He added, "So we're all set up. It's $400 per week."

Yesterday, as the Washington Post reported, the White House "clarified" that it's not actually $400 per week.

President Trump's senior aides acknowledged on Tuesday that they are providing less financial assistance for the unemployed than the president initially advertised amid mounting blowback from state officials of both parties.... By Tuesday, senior White House officials were saying publicly that the maneuver only guarantees an extra $300 per week for unemployed Americans -- with states not required to add anything to their existing state benefit programs to qualify for the federal benefit.

Part of the clarification wasn't altogether necessary: the fine print on the White House plan made clear from the outset that Trump intended to cut the $600 weekly benefit in half, while expecting cash-strapped states to chip in an additional $100 per week.

But there was something new yesterday: as recently as the weekend, the president's policy said states that failed to contribute the extra $100 per week would get nothing. The White House, which apparently unveiled this plan without fully thinking it through, said yesterday that the policy has been tweaked to be more accommodating.

White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow told Fox News, "We modified slightly the mechanics of the deal."

And while that addresses one part of the problem -- it was unlikely any state could afford to participate in Trump's plan -- other pitfalls remain. The Wall Street Journal reported this morning, for example, that it will take at least "a couple of weeks" before the administration can begin sending out the new, halved benefit, financed by borrowing money from FEMA. (That timeline strikes me as optimistic; in some states, it's likely to take more than a couple of weeks.)

What's more, the White House will be drawing funds from a $44 billion pool that will run out of money in as little as five weeks -- at which point we'll be right back to where we are now.

In theory, if the president's team and congressional leaders could reach an agreement on a new aid package, the flaws in Trump's evolving plan would be irrelevant. But those negotiations clearly aren't going well.