And in a trademark bombshell that blindsided aides, Trump on Tuesday also issued a sudden pre-Christmas demand for changes to a desperately needed $900 billion pandemic relief bill that risked shattering a fragile bipartisan compromise he had made no effort to shape. His move could send global markets into free fall and prolong the deprivation of millions of Americans who are going hungry or have lost their jobs.
The antics of the outgoing President in recent hours further weighed down the yet-to-begin presidency of his successor, Joe Biden, who already faced the most challenging debut of any US leader since Franklin Roosevelt in 1933.
“I think it’s a nightmare that everyone is going through, and they all say it’s got to end,” Biden said Tuesday when asked whether he expected “a honeymoon” of early political goodwill to help extricate the nation from the pandemic and its consequences.
The sleazy final days of the Trump White House later hit new lows when the President wielded his unassailable pardon power, substituting political payoffs for justice in yet another morally questionable use of executive authority.
As the daily Covid death toll soared past 2,900, Trump concentrated on absolving two acolytes who had lied to investigators in the Russia probe and two staunchly supportive former GOP congressmen convicted of financial crimes.
He also spared guards from the Blackwater private security firm, founded by a political supporter, Erik Prince. The guards had unleashed sniper fire, machine guns and grenades on innocent men, women and children in Iraq in 2007.
Vice President Mike Pence — a day after getting a coronavirus vaccine available to only a tiny fraction of Americans — appeared before a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd that mocked the social distancing protocols he is supposed to promote as the head of the government’s coronavirus task force. The event encapsulated the constant prioritization of political expediency over public health that has been at the root of the White House’s disastrous mismanagement of Covid-19.
Trump remained cloistered in the White House, down to his last, most conspiratorial loyalists, plotting new ways to shatter Biden’s legitimacy in his baseless quest to reverse his clear election defeat.
“We’re watching a petulant child not getting his way throw a tantrum,” a senior Republican close to the President told CNN’s Jeremy Diamond.
A Washington bombshell
In a new attempt to maximize his fading influence, Trump issued a video Tuesday expressing his disapproval of the Covid rescue bill for not including larger one-time stimulus payments and leaving open the question of whether he will sign the bill.
The President is not alone in seeking to hike paltry $600 payments to working class Americans and pointing out the funding for pet projects inserted in the bill by lawmakers. But many of Trump’s own GOP allies opposed higher payments. And his intervention is an act of political destruction since it threatens to upend a fragile deal brokered in tortuous negotiations and could result in millions of Americans and small businesses losing access to desperately needed help.
Trump’s apparent threat to veto the package just passed by Congress could further deepen the country’s dire economic circumstances.
The President’s new demand for payments of $2,000 for each American will strike a chord among many people who viewed the stimulus checks folded into the bill as miserly.
It may be no coincidence that Trump’s move — announced in the White House, which he must vacate in 28 days — could ruin Christmas for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who last week broke with the President by recognizing Biden’s election victory.
And the President combined his gambit — a classic of Trumpian disruption — with a Machiavellian play that revealed his hope of disrupting Biden’s presidency and included a baseless claim he could still win a second term.
While he slammed millions of dollars stuffed in the bill for the arts, foreign aid and other issues, Trump failed to mention that his White House had loaded it with a tax break for business lunches at a time when many Americans are going hungry.
It is not unusual for the last throes of a tired, scandal-tainted presidency to stake out a sharp contrast with the energy and sense of mission of the next — it’s a natural condition of the constitutionally mandated transfer of power.
But the comparison is especially acute in 2020 at a time of national extremis, amid a once-in-a-century pandemic, a consequent economic disaster and an outgoing President maximizing the tools of his power for self-serving ends while denying the result of a fair election he lost.
Biden tries to fill the leadership vacuum
Biden on Tuesday made a fresh attempt to provide the kind of national leadership that has been the hallmark of Democratic and Republican presidencies for decades and has long been missing in Trump’s. That vacuum is especially in evidence over the pandemic and a Russian hack of the US government.
Biden warned that groundbreaking vaccines were in short supply and, despite the hype of Trump’s team, would take “many more months” to become available to most Americans. And in the kind of bracing message never adopted by Trump, he warned that tens of thousands more Americans will die.
“I’m going to tell you the truth. And here’s the simple truth: Our darkest days in the battle against Covid are ahead of us, not behind us,” the President-elect said in Wilmington, Delaware.
Biden also issued an unusually strong condemnation of an outgoing President by a President-elect over Trump’s absolution of Russia for a massive cyberattack on US federal servers that his government has blamed on the Kremlin.
“This assault happened on Donald Trump’s watch, when he wasn’t watching,” Biden said of a presidential response that has only deepened the mystery over Trump’s bizarre deference to President Vladimir Putin.
“It’s still his responsibility as President to defend American interests for the next four weeks. Rest assured that even if he does not take it seriously, I will.”
The start of a pardon spree
The wave of pardons announced by the President on Tuesday was perfectly within his constitutional powers. And many other presidents have offered clemency in a way that has provided get-out-of-jail-free cards to supporters caught up in scandals. But no modern president has so defiantly used the privilege for political ends or so short-circuited the Justice Department’s procedures for presidential clemency. And the pardons announced on Tuesday are likely only a down payment on more controversial moves in the days ahead.
Trump pardoned former campaign aide George Papadopoulos and Dutch lawyer Alex Van der Zwaan, who both had pleaded guilty to lying to investigators during the Russia probe. The pardons likely signal a coming effort by Trump to unravel the damning results of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which presented evidence that he had potentially obstructed justice and detailed the many questionable contacts between Trump acolytes and Russia during an election in which the Kremlin intervened to help Trump.
The President also pardoned two Border Patrol agents convicted in 2006 of shooting and wounding an unarmed undocumented immigrant and then covering it up.
Former Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who was sentenced earlier this year to 11 months in prison and three years of supervised release related to his misuse of more than $200,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses, was also pardoned.
Another vocal Trump supporter, former Rep. Chris Collins, a New York Republican, will be sprung from jail, where he has just started serving a 26-month term after admitting conspiracy to commit securities fraud and making a false statement.
The four Blackwater guards — Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard — were convicted by a federal jury in 2014. Prosecutors accused the men of illegally unleashing “powerful sniper fire, machine guns and grenade launchers on innocent men, women and children.”
Blackwater said its convoy had come under attack, and defense attorneys said in court that witness accounts were fabricated. But witnesses testified that the contractors had opened fire without provocation.
The White House said their pardons were supported by a number of members of Congress along with Pete Hegseth, the conservative Fox News host who is an ally of the President’s.