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President Donald Trump signed four executive orders Saturday intended to bypass Congress to provide economic relief to Americans during the coronavirus pandemic, under a cloud of uncertainty over whether his office has the power to enact some of these directives.
One of the executive orders would provide $300 in expanded weekly unemployment checks, with states asked to foot another $100, using money from the Disaster Relief Fund under FEMA. The order is intended to partially extend coronavirus relief in the CARES Act, which provided $600 in weekly federal unemployment benefits and expired at the end of July after Congress failed to come to a deal to at least partially renew them.
Trump also signed an executive order to defer payroll taxes for Americans making less than $100,000 through the end of the year, though that would mean those taxes would be owed later unless further action is taken. Trump said he may make those cuts permanent if he is reelected in November, even though Republicans have been against the idea every time he has pushed it this year.
The other two executive orders would provide eviction protections and extend the suspension of federal student loan payments through December.
His announcement was met with confusion, in no small part because Congress alone has the power to authorize funding for different programs, despite Trump's claims of broad economic relief. When asked by reporters at Saturday's press conference about potential legal action against his executive orders, Trump said, "If we get sued, it's somebody that doesn't want people to get money. And that's not going to be a very popular thing."
Trump repeatedly lambasted Democrats at his press conference from his Bedminster, New Jersey golf club. Talks between Democratic and Republican lawmakers for another coronavirus relief package broke down after weeks of negotiations, and Trump had indicated Friday that he will push aid through using his executive power.
The plan faced immediate pushback from Democrats.
“He’s acting lawlessly," Rep. Jamie Raskin told BuzzFeed News. "He's totally outside of his powers.”
"I’ve heard grave concerns from states about this proposal and they are simply going to opt out," Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said about Trump's plan asking states to pay 25% of weekly unemployment aid. "Their budgets have been crushed. They cannot afford a 25% match, especially when unemployment trust funds are under tremendous strain and Republicans oppose funding for state and local governments."
Trump could not say Saturday when unemployment aid will reach Americans, just that it will be "very rapid."
"We want it to be very rapid," he said. "It's going to be distributed in a way that — whichever the fastest way. There are various methods and it will be rapidly distributed."
It's also unclear how long the new expanded unemployment benefits could last, even if they are not legally challenged. In the order, Trump asked for "up to $44 billion" from the Disaster Relief Fund to be made available for the unemployment benefits — that's about as much money as the Treasury Department spent on the $600 expanded benefits in April alone.