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What Trump’s executive actions mean for struggling U.S. workers

President Trump took a series of executive actions on Saturday to ease the economic strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as additional jobless benefits and a pause on federal student loan payments. But the moves, which bypassed Congress, prompted a flurry of questions, including about their legality. Yamiche Alcindor reports and joins Lisa Desjardins and Judy Woodruff to discuss the details.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Confusion lingers tonight over the legality of President Trump's executive actions to provide economic relief during the pandemic.

    That comes as Congress remains at a stalemate on negotiations for a larger COVID-19 rescue package. The urgency is mounting now that the number of confirmed infections in the U.S. has topped 5 million.

    Yamiche Alcindor begins our coverage.

  • Question:

    How motivated is the White House today?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Today at the White House, a flurry of questions about President Trump's actions this weekend to bypass Congress and ease the economic pain of COVID-19.

  • Kayleigh McEnany:

    This president has taken action to alleviate — alleviate some of that burden, but make no mistake, there's still much more that we'd like to accomplish. That includes having willing negotiating partners in Congress.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The patchwork of relief measures, made up of three memorandums and one executive order, were signed by the president on Saturday after talks between all parties broke down.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Democrats are obstructing all of it. Therefore, I'm taking an executive action. We have had it. And we're going to save American jobs and provide relief to the American workers.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The president said he would resume additional jobless benefits, but at a reduced rate of $400 per week. The federal government would pay $300 and request already cash-strapped states to foot the rest of the bill.

    It's still unclear how many states would be willing to do so, and, for now, when any benefits would be sent. His actions also included a pause on federal student loan payments until December 31 and a deferral of payroll taxes for most workers from September through the end of the year.

    The president said this would mean bigger paychecks for working families, but the taxes will eventually be due, and the move does little for millions of Americans currently unemployed.

    Finally, President Trump also directed his administration to consider curbing evictions during the pandemic. But the executive order does not necessarily ban them or provide any money to help renters.

    Democrats over the weekend blasted the president's actions. They questioned their legality, and called for a legislative solution. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi:

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.:

    It was unconstitutional slop. While it has the illusion of saying, we're going to have a moratorium on evictions, it says, I'm going to ask you — the folks in charge to study if that's feasible.

    While he says he's going to do the payroll tax, what he's doing is undermining Social Security and Medicare. So, these are illusions. Right now, we need to come to agreement.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Over Twitter today, President Trump claimed his weekend actions had given him leverage in negotiations with Democrats. He said they were now ready to make a deal.

    And Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said this morning the ball was now on their court.

  • Steven Mnuchin:

    I think there is a compromise, if the Democrats are willing to be reasonable. There is still a lot of things that we need to do and that we have agreed on.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But the prospects for any talks at the moment are still unclear.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the question is, what more do we know about the president's weekend executive actions and what they might or might not accomplish?

    Yamiche joins me now, along with our congressional correspondent, Lisa Desjardins.

    So, before we talk about the president's actions over the weekend, Yamiche, there was just some drama in the White House Briefing Room. The Secret Service asked the president to leave.

    Tell us what we understand happened.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the president was beginning his briefing, talking about mail-in voting and the stock markets, and, soon after, a Secret Service agent approached him and said he had to leave.

    The president then left. He came back a few minutes later and said that someone had been shot outside the White House. We're not sure if that's outside the gates or on — or outside the building.

    The point is, the Secret Service says that they now have the situation under control. The person has been taken to the hospital. President Trump says he feels very safe, and the briefing is now continuing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, let me turn now to what the president was saying over the weekend and what Yamiche was just reporting, Lisa.

    So, of course, we're glad no one appears to have been hurt by what may have been the shooting.

    But, Lisa, on the unemployment assistance, and the president talking about $400 a week, I think the question is, how exactly would this work? And there are still questions about whether it would actually get to the people it's intended for.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Let me answer that last question first, Judy.

    It is not clear any of this money will get to the unemployed. It will be state by state. And if it goes out, it will take many weeks. So, let me break down a little bit of why that is. First, there is the issue that each state must opt in to this idea. And each state must itself contribute $100 per person per week.

    Many states may not have that money right now. So, states have to choose this. Also, they may have to go through some process inside the state.

    So, let's say a state does decide to participate in this. The next issue is that the president is using money from the disaster assistance fund, which is meant for things like hurricanes. But that fund is only so large. And when you do the math, Judy, it looks like, talking to experts and people on — in both parties, that this money would only last for five or six weeks' worth of these payments.

    So, the third problem, Judy, is, if a state does sign up and wants these payments, it is going to take them a long amount of time, most states, weeks to months to change their unemployment system to get these checks rolling.

    So, Judy, what could happen here is, if a state does accept these payments, does allow it to go to their citizens, it could take them so long to actually get that system going, that, in the end, there may just be one check, and it may come out just as the money is running out.

    So, at best, this is short-term, Judy. And, for many states, it may not happen at all.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Wow. So much to absorb about that.

    So, Yamiche, one other thing. And another thing you talked about in your report was — had to do with evictions and housing. What the president is saying doesn't go as far as banning evictions and not financial assistance.

    So, what is the idea behind what the president said there?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    That's right.

    The idea behind this executive order — he signed three memoranda. But the executive order is specifically on evictions. And what the president directs federal agencies to do is to look into the idea of whether or not there can be some sort of relief given to the more than 110 million Americans who are renting, as well as people who have federal mortgages.

    And in this regard, the president has not set aside any money. So, if you're someone who's renting who's scared that you might be evicted, this right now does not stop your landlord from doing that. Instead, what this is doing is essentially studying the problem.

    I talked to a lot of people, especially here in Southeast D.C. and in Northern Virginia, where there are a lot of vulnerable people who are infected disproportionately by the virus. Those people are very scared that, now that these eviction protections have elapsed, that they could be thrown out.

    And, as of right now, they could still be thrown out, unless the president puts more teeth into something else.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Wow.

    So, another piece of this is important, getting a lot of attention, Lisa, has to do with payroll taxes, the president talking about putting them — cutting them and basically giving people a break for the last part of the year.

    How would that work? And what does it really mean? I mean, would people actually see a reduction?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's exactly the right question again.

    And, Judy, again, it is not clear that people will see this money in their paychecks. And here's why. The payroll tax, as many people may know, is 6.2 percent out of most paychecks. That goes to fund Medicare and Social Security.

    But it doesn't — it's not something that we pay, as individuals, to the IRS. Companies collect that money, essentially. And the company is responsible for forwarding that money to the IRS on behalf of employees.

    So, the cut, first round, goes to those companies. And the companies have to decide whether they will pass it on to their employees or not.

    One reason they wouldn't do it, Judy, is because, under the president's order here, what the president is doing, this money must be paid back unless something changes at the end of the year or soon after.

    So, a company like Amazon, this is billions of dollars. They don't want to hand it out and then have a bill come due next year, when we could still very well be in the pandemic.

    So, the thinking is that many companies may not pass on this money, instead may hold on to it, because they might just need to give it back again in a few months. So, it's a complicated maneuver.

    And one other note. A lot of comparisons are being made to the Obama payroll tax cut. One difference with that one, Judy, is, Congress actually passed replacement funds for that payroll tax cut, so that Social Security and Medicare would not lose money.

    In this situation, there has not been the replacement funds. Instead, it is dependent on companies and essentially employees paying this money back.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So many moving parts here.

    And just finally, very quickly, Yamiche, I want to ask you about the fact that, while this has been going on, on the president's part, those negotiations on the Hill, people are still looking to see if that's going to produce anything.

    Is it thought that what the president did is going to cause that to move forward, or what? I mean, what's the effect it's expected to have on the action the Hill?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the president was very eager to look like he was doing something for the American people because the talks stalled on Friday. The White House had a deadline for themselves to then go it alone. So, the president did that over the weekend.

    Now, it seems as though that the talks continue to be stalled. The Senate right now is not expected to be back, as Lisa and I are both reporting.

    The other thing is, there are — there is this feeling that, now that the president is saying that this is the thing that will — that will save everything, and that will fix the problem, that there is some feeling from the White House that he has already solved this.

    But the White House is still looking, as well as Democrats, to make some sort of deal. The president today said that Nancy Pelosi and Senator Schumer had called him and were interested in making a deal. They, of course, said that they never called them president.

    So, what we have here is really a stalemate, and the president saying, well, look, at least I have tried to do something here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So much to follow.

    Lisa and Yamiche, thank you both for following this so closely.

    We appreciate it.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You're welcome.

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