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A day on the golf course helped change Trump’s mind on stimulus bill

President Donald Trump with Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va., in July.
President Donald Trump with Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va., in July.Al Drago/For The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - The frantic campaign to persuade President Donald Trump to sign a massive spending and coronavirus relief bill came to a head on Christmas Day, on the greens and fairways of West Palm Beach, Fla.

Three days earlier, Trump rocked Washington with a surprise video announcement suggesting that he might veto the bill, a meticulously negotiated measure aimed at delivering unemployment benefits, stimulus checks and other desperately needed aid to millions of Americans.

With other key Republicans waylaid, it fell to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to talk the president down. So Graham raced to Trump's Florida golf club and worked the problem: What possible solution could assuage Trump without forcing Congress to reopen negotiations?

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"We'd hit a shot, take a phone call. Hit a shot, take a phone call. Hit a shot, talk about what's a good deal," Graham said in an interview Monday. "It was a very intense Christmas Day."

Two days later, Trump signed the measure and issued a long statement airing his grievances and expectations. On Monday, the House responded, voting 275 to 134 to advance one of Trump's key demands: boosting the stimulus checks from $600 per adult to $2,000.

In truth, however, Graham and other Trump allies - including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows - had negotiated a near-complete surrender. Trump's statement promised a "formal rescission request" to cut spending on foreign aid and vowed that the Senate would "start the process for a vote" to curb liability protections for tech firms. But none of it is guaranteed, or even likely, to change the terms of the deal Congress passed a week ago.

Even the effort to increase the size of the stimulus checks appeared to be a mirage. Although 44 Republicans joined virtually every House Democrat in supporting the measure late Monday, the bill faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, where many Republicans oppose the sizable cost. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has yet to sketch out a course of action with scant days remaining before the current Congress adjourns and Georgia voters determine control of the chamber in a pair of Jan. 5 runoffs.

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Still, by signing the coronavirus relief package, Trump avoided plunging his administration into further chaos in its final days - to say nothing of the disarray the bill's failure would have meant for millions of ordinary Americans. Had Trump not signed the bill, unemployment benefits and stimulus checks would have been delayed, along with additional funding for vaccine distribution. It also could have sparked a lengthy government shutdown that might not have been resolved until Trump left office on Jan. 20.

Trump's approach to the relief package was in line with four years of dysfunctional relations between his White House and Capitol Hill. Repeatedly, the president has been too uninterested or distracted to get involved in the negotiations that shape legislation, and then has swooped in to upend the delicate compromises that lay at the heart of lawmaking.

Two years ago, for example, Trump nearly torpedoed a spending bill, pledging to "never sign another bill like this again," and attacking lawmakers for loading it up with provisions he opposed and passing it on short notice.

This time around, Trump spent weeks consumed by his failing campaign to undermine President-elect Joe Biden's victory, pressuring Republican lawmakers to contest the election results while congressional negotiators moved toward a stimulus deal without his direct input. After the bill passed, Trump fumed that it failed to address his core obsessions: bigger stimulus checks. Amplification of his baseless claims of a stolen election. And punishment of the tech companies that have begun to rein in his social media postings.

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In the days before Christmas, Trump indicated to advisers and allies that he was inclined to dig in and fight. But the Christmas trip to the links with Graham, in particular, appeared to shift Trump's thinking, according to one senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the president's decision-making process.

"The best opportunity to get him on anything is to get out on the golf course with him and just talk," the official said. "And Lindsey was out there."

Graham was far from alone. Republicans across Washington had blanched at Trump's shocking threat to kill the coronavirus relief package - especially with the Georgia runoffs and the Senate majority hanging in the balance.

Moments before Trump posted the Dec. 22 video threatening to torpedo the bill, he was on the phone with McCarthy - who was in a clinic in Bakersfield, Calif., minutes away from going under general anesthesia for surgery on an injured elbow. McCarthy spent the rest of the week at home with his arm in a cast, reminding Trump of the political wins he'd secured in the bill and searching for a way to address the president's remaining concerns.

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That effort finally began to jell when Graham stepped onto the golf course in Florida, kicking off a frenetic three-day stretch until Trump ultimately signed the bill Sunday evening.

While McCarthy worked the phones from California, Mnuchin did the same from his vacation home in Mexico, trying to salvage his reputation as Trump's best dealmaker. Mnuchin had represented Trump on Capitol Hill through eight months of off-and-on negotiations, and he had assured McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other congressional leaders that Trump would sign the nearly 5,600-page coronavirus relief bill.

Mnuchin and Meadows, a Treasury spokesperson said, "worked closely together with the President, congressional leadership, and members of Congress of both parties over the last week to address the president's concerns."

In the end, it was Graham's personal touch that helped unlock the potential outlines of a deal. Graham was uniquely positioned to address the president's concerns: He had long shared Trump's gripes about powerful tech companies. As a senior appropriator, he had helped assemble the foreign aid package Trump had railed against. And, unlike McConnell, he had not urged fellow Republicans to oppose Trump's attempts to overturn the November election.

On the golf course, Graham determined that two of the president's grievances towered over all others: that the $600 checks, which had been sized to keep the overall relief package under $1 trillion at the behest of congressional Republicans, were simply too small, and that Congress had done nothing to rein in a key federal law - Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act - that gave online platforms a broad shield against liability for the actions of their users. Trump had tried to block the annual Pentagon policy bill to punish the tech companies he loathes.

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"What drove his thinking was, 'I'm not going to give in until I get a vote on the checks in the Senate, and I'm not going to sign this bill until we finally address Section 230,' " Graham said Monday. "The commitment to have a vote in the Senate made a lot of difference to the president."

Another factor for Trump was chatter on right-wing websites and social media about foreign aid and other congressional "pork" - items negotiated separately from the $900 billion coronavirus measure but bundled with it into a single package. For example, Trump had complained about $25 million for democracy and gender programs in Pakistan, $25 million to combat Asian carp, and $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt, contrasting that spending with Congress's stinginess on the stimulus checks.

But Graham and others noted a political problem: Most of that money had been proposed in Trump's own budget and had Republican support in Congress. The Asian carp money, for example, is intended to combat the spread of an invasive species in Kentucky and Tennessee.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a former White House budget director, proposed a solution: a "rescissions" package that would let Trump ask Congress to cut that spending. While lawmakers probably would reject the cuts, the president could impound the money for up to 45 days - meaning it could not be spent until after he left office.

Aides to Portman and McCarthy declined to comment.

In signing the measure Sunday, Trump touted the maneuver as a victory without mentioning that Congress could simply ignore it: "I will send back to Congress a redlined version, item by item, accompanied by the formal rescission request to Congress insisting that those funds be removed from the bill."

Within hours, Democratic appropriators declared Trump's demand dead on arrival.

The fate of the $2,000 checks and Section 230, meanwhile, remains in flux. It is unclear whether the larger checks will get a stand-alone vote in the Senate, despite Trump's claim to that effect. McConnell has kept his distance from the crash lobbying effort of recent days and has said nothing about how the Senate will proceed.

McConnell will be under pressure to take some kind of action. After the House passed the bill late Monday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he would move Tuesday to pass it in the Senate. But any senator could block the measure. McConnell also could seek to package the larger checks with other Trump demands, but that probably would generate Democratic objections, blocking action before the new Congress is seated on Jan. 3.

Some Senate Republicans - including Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marco Rubio of Florida - support larger checks, and Graham predicted that a stand-alone measure would garner the necessary 60 votes. He also predicted that the Senate would vote on repealing the tech liability shield, along with a provision establishing a commission to investigate election fraud. A McConnell spokesman declined to comment on those claims.

While Trump's maneuvering over the past week may not change the law, it does appear to have succeeded in accomplishing two goals: complicating life for McConnell and sending a message to Trump's passionate base of supporters.

According to two advisers familiar with Trump's thinking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly, Trump was motivated by the belief that the $600 payments would be relatively meaningless to struggling Americans - many of them his supporters - and he wanted to be seen as fighting for more.

“There’s this criticism of him that he’s self-absorbed and just trying to stay in office,” the senior administration official said. But by demanding larger payments, Trump calculated that he could send a powerful message to his base: “Never forget, I’m here. I’m fighting for you.”