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Batten down the Hatch Act: Trump using tax dollars to boost his 'brand'

Batten down the Hatch Act: Trump using tax dollars to boost his 'brand'
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The Coronavirus has wrecked President TrumpDonald TrumpGiuliani used provisional ballot to vote in 2020 election, same method he disparaged in fighting to overturn results Trump gets lowest job approval rating in final days as president Fox News' DC managing editor Bill Sammon to retire MORE’s re-election campaign strategy. He had planned to run on a robust economy with historically low unemployment. But COVID-19 — and his incompetent response to it — has plunged the United States into a recession. A substantial majority of Americans believe the president mishandled the pandemic and do not trust his claims that the country is “rounding the corner,” the treatments he has touted, or his promises about a vaccine.

With virtually every reputable poll showing former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenWoman accused of trying to sell Pelosi laptop to Russians arrested Trump gets lowest job approval rating in final days as president Trump moves to lift coronavirus travel restrictions on Europe, Brazil MORE with a substantial lead, Trump appears to be getting desperate. He is claiming, without evidence, that Democrats will use mail-in ballots to steal the election.

What’s more, Trump — the supposed billionaire — is using taxpayers’ money every way he can think of to boost his “brand” before the election.

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In April, after Congress passed the CARES Act, Trump insisted that his name appear on all the stimulus checks, even though he had pushed for payroll tax cuts rather than direct payments and is not authorized to sign IRS disbursements. His signature was on the memo line, a first for any disbursement issued by the non-partisan Internal Revenue Service.

This month, after cancelling negotiations with Democrats over another relief package, Trump reversed course, declaring he was willing to approve a second round of $1,200 checks. “All he ever wanted in the negotiations,” Speaker Pelosi indicated, “was to send out a check with his name printed on it.”

Throughout 2020, to compensate for losses stemming from his trade war with China and the Coronavirus, Trump vastly increased already massive bailouts to farmers. Over $32 billion by July (with more on the way), the subsidies exceeded the annual discretionary budget of the Department of Agriculture. In January, Trump tweeted that he hoped the money “will be the thing they [farmers] remember.”

Pointing out that the disbursements to farmers were unsustainable, Anne Schechinger, an economist at the Environmental Working Group, stated the obvious: “There’s definitely a connection between his supporters and the people who are getting money from these huge payments.”

In August, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellWhat would MLK say about Trump and the Republican Party? Biden's minimum wage push faces uphill battle with GOP GOP senators wrestle with purging Trump from party MORE (R-Ky.) refused to take up the stimulus bill the House had passed at the end of May, Trump (at what, in essence, was a taxpayer-funded campaign rally) signed an “executive action” that, he maintained, would “take care of this entire situation.” The orders purportedly extended a moratorium on evictions, froze payroll tax payments (which Trump said he would eventually “terminate,” even though he had no authority to do so), and provided $400 a week to Americans laid off during the pandemic.

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The orders, it turned out, did not mandate a suspension of evictions. The payroll tax moratorium depleted Social Security and Medicare funds. And the $400 weekly payment, which was conditioned on cash-strapped states chipping in 25 percent of the disbursement and depleted the HHS Disaster Relief Fund at the beginning of the hurricane season, would run out in about five weeks.

This fall, the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program included in each box a letter from Trump saluting recipients as “cherished members of our great American family” and informing them that he “prioritized” delivery of the supply of nutritious food. Announcing that “I will always take care of our wonderful seniors. Joe Biden won’t be doing this,” Trump ordered Medicare officials to send a $200 drug discount coupon to 33 million elderly Americans. And with Republicans well behind Democrats in campaign fund-raising, the president plans to take $300 million from HHS to fund a “Give America Hope” TV advertising campaign.

Asked in August whether Trump has violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits use of government resources for partisan political purposes, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows replied, “Nobody outside the Beltway really cares.”

Meadows may be right.

But then, again, sunlight may be the best disinfectant — and a majority of American voters may have concluded, along with former Chief of Staff General John Kelly, that they have had enough of “the dishonesty, the transactional nature of every relationship” — and that they need to look harder at who they elect next.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of "Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century."