Why did Trump pick fights with Congress he was sure to lose?

Mike Bebernes
·Editor
·5 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

President Trump threw Washington into chaos late last month when he announced his opposition to both a massive coronavirus relief package and a bipartisan defense funding bill. Despite the spectacle his objections created, both pieces of legislation passed without any of Trump’s demands being met.

The president called the $900 billion stimulus bill that Congress had approved a “disgrace” and demanded that the $600 direct payments included in the package be increased to $2,000. Democrats enthusiastically rallied behind the larger checks. But, as expected, the idea was a nonstarter in the Republican-controlled Senate. Trump eventually signed the bill as written a few days later, which averted a government shutdown and ensured aid would reach millions of Americans struggling with the economic impact of the pandemic.

He also vetoed a $740 billion defense spending bill, primarily because it didn’t include a repeal of liability protections for social media companies and included language to rename military bases named after Confederate figures. Both the House and Senate easily voted to override Trump’s veto by comfortable margins. It was the first time in Trump’s presidency that Congress had reversed one of his vetoes.

It was clear to most observers from the outset that neither of Trump’s moves stood much chance of success. His demand for larger stimulus checks came after he’d been mostly absent as Democrats and Republicans pursued a delicate compromise through months of negotiations. There is some support in both parties for addressing social media liability protections, but the issue isn’t important enough to either side for them to put the fate of a critical military funding bill at risk.

Why there’s debate

Since it seemed far-fetched that any of Trump’s demands would be met, political pundits debated what compelled the president to instigate such a high-profile fight he was destined to lose.

A common theory is the president sought to embarrass congressional Republicans who he sees as not doing enough to back his efforts to overturn the election results. Forcing them to block a popular proposal to increase direct payments helps ensure that public discontent over the size of the stimulus bill is aimed at the GOP, not Trump himself. Trump’s challenge also created a political quagmire for Republicans competing in two crucial Senate runoffs in Georgia. The president has raged against GOP leadership in the state over baseless fraud allegations, including in a recently leaked phone conversation with Georgia’s secretary of state.

It’s also possible that Trump didn’t see his gambit as a sure failure, some argue. Throughout most of his presidency, congressional Republicans have mostly followed his lead when he’s become involved in an issue. Trump may have expected the same with these two bills, having not considered how his election loss might have dampened his influence over the GOP.

Trump’s defenders say his moves were a sincere effort to promote policies he believes in. Congress was unlikely to repeal social media liability protections, but Trump was able to bring enormous attention to the debate, for example.

What’s next

Congress will meet on Wednesday to count Electoral College votes. A number of Republicans are expected to object to the results, but their efforts appear to have little chance of preventing Joe Biden from being inaugurated on Jan. 20.

Perspectives

Trump wants to harm as many of his perceived enemies as possible

“Long driven by grievance, Trump seems to be ensuring no grudge goes unpunished before he leaves office. He is using his remaining days as President to settle scores, even if those left to suffer have nothing to do with his baroque conspiracies or his wounded ego.” — Kevin Liptak, CNN

He stood up for what he believes in

“What he didn’t like in the bill outweighed what he did like. That is why a president vetoes a bill. It’s not unheard of or un-American.” — Clint Cooper, Chattanooga Times Free Press

Trump’s primary motivation is to be at the center of the spectacle

“He wanted a cliffhanger, and he got one, keeping us guessing until the very end because that’s what you get when you make a reality television host president. And while Trump may have won the news cycle yet again, the Americans have lost — because we always do with Trump.” — Molly Jong-Fast, Daily Beast

Trump was was right to address anger over the stimulus, but he made a strategic error

“A canny populist would notice, as Trump has, that there is growing anger and resentment. But unlike Trump, he would energetically lead and shape it, making it more intelligible and expressible within the political class.” — Michael Brendan Dougherty, National Review

Trump’s moves were based on emotion, not strategy

“It may be Trump’s idea of a loyalty test. … More likely, it’s a fit of pique that the president’s throwing because lawmakers flatly ignored him on a handful of unrelated issues he’d made priorities. It’s more a personal beef than a principled objection.” — Jon Healey, Los Angeles Times

Republicans had shown little appetite for defying him in the past

“Surprise of surprises, it turns out the GOP actually can stand up to this destructive president when its back is to the wall.” — Editorial, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

He wanted to draw attention to an issue he cares about

“The president succeeded in raising public awareness of the need to repeal or at least modify Section 230. … It was unconventional leadership. But it was leadership. If the Republicans hold the Senate, watch for them to act on Section 230 reform amid Big Tech howls.” — Rebecca Grant, Fox News

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