For those wondering if the president has fully regained his equilibrium after hospitalization and treatment for COVID-19, October 6 was a disturbing day. That afternoon, Trump abruptly pulled the plug on stimulus negotiations that had been showing significant progress after months of on-again, off-again talks between his Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He indicated he’d come back to the subject “after I win” in November. Instead, he came back to it within hours, presumably dismayed by a quick dive in the stock market. Here’s how a bewildered report from The Hill summed up his conduct:
Tuesday was filled with inconsistent messaging from Trump. Hours after halting negotiations, he fired off a trio of tweets indicating that he still wanted to pass immediate relief in some form. In one, he indicated support for [Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome] Powell’s remarks earlier on Tuesday [urgently citing the need for stimulus] and called for Congress to pass standalone bills to fund the airlines, refill the Paycheck Protection Program and for another round of $1,200 direct checks to some Americans.
Politico Playbook compared Trump to the Steve Buscemi character in The Big Lebowski, who was “like a child who wanders in in the middle of a movie”:
TWEETS TUESDAY about the Covid stimulus talks seem like he’s awaking from a monthslong slumber, unbriefed by his advisers and unaware of his surroundings as he enters the fray …
Republicans have been suggesting stand-alone bills for months. Speaker NANCY PELOSI has even said that she would pass a stand-alone airline relief bill – one of her chairs tried last week, and the GOP blocked it. If TRUMP had pushed for this a month ago, when Congress was in session, it might have had a chance of being successful.
Shouting demands on Twitter at Democrats after abandoning painstakingly slow but steady negotiations wasn’t a good look for a president already suspected of losing his grip. As recently as October 3, the president was tweeting encouragement for the stimulus negotiators from Walter Reed medical center. Not a whole lot happened, at least in public view, to justify his decision to kill it all.
If Trump had, as some observers figured, heard from Mitch McConnell that Mnuchin was in danger of cutting a deal too generous for congressional Republicans to stomach, he could have carefully worked up to a final, very public offer to Pelosi and at least shared the blame for talks collapsing. Instead he blew it all up unilaterally and then tried to backtrack in an unusually feckless way.
It’s unclear what, if anything, happens now. After his self-contradictory stimulus diktats, Trump wandered off into a very extended series of tweets and retweets on the bizarre Obamagate conspiracy theory, while offering the kind of temperate commentary sure to draw Democrats into a reconsideration of stimulus measures, like this assessment of Joe Biden:
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows felt the need to head off any false hopes that Trump could put the genie back in the bottle:
Trump certainly can’t send a thoroughly discredited Mnuchin back to Pelosi’s office to restart talks, and even if he could, his apparent position that any aid to state and local governments (Mnuchin was reportedly offering over $400 billion) is evil and corrupt makes the pretense of negotiations laughable. So all that’s left for Trump is to play the blame game after telling the whole world it was his decision to kill the talks. It’s quite the display of negotiating savvy by the author of The Art of the Deal.