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Trump signs massive COVID relief bill, after slamming it for days as ‘disgrace’

Under pressure from all sides, US president approves $900 billion aid package but tells Congress ‘wasteful items must be removed’

US President Donald Trump waves as he boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, December 23, 2020. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
US President Donald Trump waves as he boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, December 23, 2020. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

WEST PALM BEACH, Florida — After delaying the move for nearly a week and under pressure from all sides, US President Donald Trump finally signed a massive $900 billion stimulus bill on Sunday, in a long-sought boost for millions of Americans and businesses battered by the coronavirus pandemic.

The package “providing coronavirus emergency response and relief” is part of a larger spending bill that, with Trump’s signature, will avoid a government shutdown on Tuesday.

“I am signing this bill to restore unemployment benefits, stop evictions, provide rental assistance, add money for PPP, return our airline workers back to work, add substantially more money for vaccine distribution, and much more,” the president said in a statement from his Christmas vacation at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

For days, Trump refused to put his signature on the relief package approved overwhelmingly by Congress following months of negotiation, calling it a “disgrace.”

Two federal unemployment benefit programs approved in March as part of an initial COVID-19 relief plan expired at midnight on Saturday, cutting off an estimated 12 million Americans, according to The Century Foundation think tank.

The relief package, passed by Congress on December 21, would extend those benefits as well as others set to expire in the days ahead.

US President Donald Trump rides in a motorcade vehicle as he departs Trump International Golf Club, December 27, 2020, in West Palm Beach, Florida. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

But in his statement, Trump continued to push for the $600 direct payments to US taxpayers spelled out in the bill to be more than tripled, and argued the legislation included too much excess spending on unrelated programs.

“I will sign the Omnibus and COVID package with a strong message that makes clear to Congress that wasteful items need to be removed,” Trump said in the statement.

He has not said why he waited until the bill was already approved to make his views known.

President-elect Joe Biden, due to be sworn in January 20 after beating Trump in November’s election, had warned of “devastating consequences” on Saturday if the president continued his refusal.

Lawmakers now have breathing room to continue debating whether the relief checks should be as large as the president has demanded. The Democratic-led House supports the larger checks and is set to vote on the issue Monday, but it’s expected to be ignored by the Republican-held Senate where spending faces opposition.

Republicans and Democrats swiftly welcomed Trump’s decision to sign the bill into law.

“The compromise bill is not perfect, but it will do an enormous amount of good for struggling Kentuckians and Americans across the country who need help now,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “I thank the President for signing this relief into law.”

Democrats are promising more aid to come once President-elect Joe Biden takes office, but Republicans are signaling a wait-and-see approach.

Shoppers walk in a rainstorm through New York’s Times Square, November 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

In the face of growing economic hardship, spreading disease and a looming shutdown, lawmakers on Sunday had urged Trump to sign the legislation immediately, then have Congress follow up with additional aid. Aside from unemployment benefits and relief payments to families, money for vaccine distribution, businesses, cash-starved public transit systems and more is on the line. Protections against evictions also hung in the balance.

“What the president is doing right now is unbelievably cruel,” said Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent. “So many people are hurting. … It is really insane and this president has got to finally … do the right thing for the American people and stop worrying about his ego.”

Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said he understood that Trump “wants to be remembered for advocating for big checks, but the danger is he’ll be remembered for chaos and misery and erratic behavior if he allows this to expire.”

Toomey added: “So I think the best thing to do, as I said, sign this and then make the case for subsequent legislation.”

The same point was echoed by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican who’s criticized Trump’s pandemic response and his efforts to undo the election results. “I just gave up guessing what he might do next,” he said.

Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois said too much is at stake for Trump to “play this old switcheroo game.”

“I don’t get the point,” he said. “I don’t understand what’s being done, why, unless it’s just to create chaos and show power and be upset because you lost the election.”

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