In the six weeks since President-elect Joe Biden won the White House, President Donald Trump has proved again and again that he has little concern for anyone other than himself, scheming and spreading falsehoods as he seeks to overturn the election while seeming unmoved by the grim climb in coronavirus cases that has led to more than 316,000 deaths in the United States while countless Americans struggle to keep food on the table.
Just when it seemed like the President couldn’t sink any lower in his quest to subvert the November election results, his mere entertainment of invoking martial law to negate Biden’s victory underscores how laser-focused he still is on his own interests at a time when the nation is mired in crisis.
The idea came up during an extraordinary Oval Office meeting Friday between Trump, members of his team and two of his most discredited outside advisers – lawyer Sidney Powell, a fount of baseless voter fraud theories, and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, whom Trump recently pardoned and who first floated the martial law idea earlier last week. The impromptu gathering devolved into a shouting match between his advisers – some of whom were forcefully resisting Powell and Flynn’s outrageous suggestions – but it nevertheless showed how Trump continues to surround himself with sycophants, no matter how crazy their theories are as long as they will benefit him.
Though Trump is fighting hard to stay in the White House, he has shown little interest in doing the actual work required of the commander-in-chief. Though he directed billions of dollars into Operation Warp Speed to speed the development and distribution of a coronavirus vaccine, he has done nothing to try to curb the spread of Covid-19 in the interim – tweeting Saturday that “we don’t want to have lockdowns. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself.”
The President also did not play any meaningful public role in nudging members of Congress toward an agreement on the emergency stimulus package – which they finally brokered Sunday – that would alleviate some of the nation’s financial suffering as some 12 million Americans face the loss of their jobless benefits on December 26.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Sunday evening that House and Senate leaders agreed to a package of nearly $900 billion, which he said included “targeted policies that help struggling Americans who have already waited entirely too long.”
The package will include “a targeted second draw” of the Paycheck Protection Program to help small businesses, he said, and will renew and extend “a number of the additional important federal unemployment benefits that have helped families stay afloat.”
McConnell noted that the package also will include another round of direct payments to “help households make ends meet,” which he noted was favored by Trump.
“We are going to crush the virus and put money in the pockets of the American people,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a joint statement Sunday evening.
They noted that the package will provide billions to help accelerate the vaccine distribution. Schumer and Pelosi said Democrats also secured $25 billion in rental assistance for families struggling to stay in their homes, as well as an extension of the eviction moratorium.
Leaders had said for days that they were close to a deal, but one of the major sticking points this weekend was a disagreement over the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending authority – a seemingly esoteric issue that would have seemed far removed from the lives of most struggling Americans if it had held up the deal.
Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican, had argued the lending program, created under the CARES Act passed in March to help boost the economy, should be phased out because he believed it could become a slush fund for the incoming Biden administration. Democrats had said that authority is needed to bolster the economy.
There was a key breakthrough late Saturday night, when Toomey agreed to drop his demands over the broad language in his proposal reining in the Fed’s lending authorities.
Trump tweeted Saturday night about the deadlock, saying, “Why isn’t Congress giving our people a Stimulus Bill?” and “GET IT DONE, and give them more money in direct payments.”
Trump and Russia
For the first time Saturday, Trump also addressed the massive cyberattack on US government agencies, contradicting his own Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said Friday that “we can now say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity.”
Trump, who has inexplicably proven unwilling to call out Russia or President Vladimir Putin for nefarious acts over the past four years, confounded national security experts on Saturday by tweeting that “it may be China” that is responsible for the attacks.
“I have been fully briefed and everything is well under control,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Showing his lingering insecurity about the legitimacy of his 2016 victory, and his rejection of any suggestion that Russia tried to interfere in that contest against Hillary Clinton to help him win, Trump went on to say that “Russia, Russia, Russia is the priority chant when anything happens.”
“Discussing the possibility that it may be China (it may!),” the President tweeted of the cyber hack that breached US government systems.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close ally of Trump, said Sunday he thinks it’s a “mistake” for the President to be blaming China without any evidence. “I have no reason to believe it’s China,” the South Carolina Republican told CNN’s Manu Raju and Ali Zaslav.
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who warned when he was running for president in 2012 that Russia was America’s number one geopolitical foe, noted that the President has always had “a blind spot” when it comes to Russia and said the idea of invoking martial law to force new presidential elections in swing states is “not going to happen. That’s going nowhere.”
“I understand the President is casting about, trying to find some way to have a different result than the one that was delivered by the American people. But it’s really sad, in a lot of respects, and embarrassing, because the President could right now be writing the last chapter of this administration with a victory lap with regards to the vaccine,” Romney told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.”
“After all, he pushed aggressively to get the vaccine developed and distributed. That’s happening on a quick time frame. He could be going out and championing this extraordinary success. And, instead, he’s leaving Washington with a whole series of conspiracy theories and things that are so nutty and loopy that people are shaking their head, wondering, what in the world has gotten into this man?”
Other Republican senators gingerly tried to sidestep the President’s latest theories about the cyberattack and the November election this weekend. Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who is acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said of the hack, “Everything I’ve seen is indicative of something that’s pretty widespread and serious and I think indicates that it was the Russian intelligence service.”
When asked about Trump’s claim that China might be involved in the massive cyberhack, Sen. Jim Inhofe, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee and was briefed on the attack, replied, “All of I’ve heard is Russia.”
The Oklahoma Republican also told Raju that Trump made a bad decision by vowing to veto the annual defense authorization bill, which Trump has claimed is weak on China – a view Inhofe disputes.
“I really believe he’s not getting the right advice. I know people advising him – they don’t appreciate the fact that I say that,” Inhofe said. “But I believe that.”
Rep. Adam Smith, the Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called Trump “an aspiring fascist” who admires Putin and wants the same kind of control that Putin exerts over his own country and its elections. Smith said the reports that Trump entertained Flynn’s theories about invoking martial law were “unbelievably disturbing.”
“He is talking about basically leading a coup against the United States government and destroying our Constitution,” Smith told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room” Saturday night. “There needs to be strong bipartisan pushback against this. It is an unbelievably dangerous thing for the President to be talking about.”
A contentious Oval Office meeting
Trump continues to test the guardrails of democracy as he looks ahead to January 6 when a joint session of Congress meets to formally count the Electoral College results, which have now been certified by all 50 states. Biden overwhelmingly defeated Trump with 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232.
But that didn’t stop Flynn from raising the martial law idea, although it’s unclear whether Trump endorsed the idea when it came up in the White House meeting Friday, CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Pamela Brown reported. Other officials who attended the meeting, first reported by the New York Times, rejected that idea along with the notion that Powell should be named as a special counsel who would investigate claims of voter fraud, which have been consistently debunked.
The meeting took an “ugly” turn when Powell and Flynn accused Trump officials of failing to back up the President in his efforts to overturn the results.
The pushback against Flynn and Powell’s theories and suggestions does not appear to have tempered the President’s interest in finding a way to block Biden from taking office as he tweeted baseless theories this weekend about compromised voting machines.
Late Saturday night, he tweeted about martial law, seeming to dismiss the reporting about the idea.
Trump’s political operation has raised more than $207 million since the election as he has pushed false claims of voter fraud. Many of the solicitations said contributions would support his legal efforts to contest the election. But much of the money was directed toward a new leadership PAC that Trump started shortly after the election.
Though his campaign legal team once distanced itself from Powell – and advised staffers Saturday to preserve all documents related to Dominion Voting Systems and the pro-Trump attorney in anticipation of litigation by the company against her – Trump has been urging other people to fight like Powell has, multiple people familiar with his remarks told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins.
This story has been updated with additional information.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Pamela Brown, Manu Raju, Kaitlan Collins, Ali Zaslav and Clare Foran contributed to this report.