Trump’s executive stimulus orders: When they start, are they legal, what you should know

The president made good on his threat to intercede in ongoing stimulus package negotiations this weekend, issuing actions to cover four key interests.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Following the failure of Democrats and Republicans to agree on another COVID-19 stimulus package by Friday’s self-imposed deadline, President Donald Trump signed an executive order and issued three memoranda Saturday during a high politicized press conference. Trump went on to say he would provide economic relief during the current recession caused by the coronavirus. The executive actions, however, could face legal challenges and have already been sharply criticized by Democratic negotiators.

“Today’s meager announcements by the President show President Trump still does not comprehend the seriousness or the urgency of the health and economic crises facing working families,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the top Democrats, said in a joint statement. “We’re disappointed that instead of putting in the work to solve Americans’ problems, the President instead chose to stay on his luxury golf course to announce unworkable, weak and narrow policy announcements to slash the unemployment benefits that millions desperately need and endanger seniors’ Social Security and Medicare.”

The memoranda cover deferring payroll tax, extending enhanced unemployment benefits (while lowering them from $600 to $400) and assisting with student loans. The federal government would pay 75% of the enhanced unemployment benefit, with state governments taking care of the other 25%, Trump said. He also signed an executive order extending a moratorium on evictions.

The Republican-proposed HEALS Act left negotiators unable to find common ground on many of the same issues Trump targeted in his executive action, including the enhanced unemployment benefits, the eviction moratorium extension and the amount of relief aid offered to state and local governments.

Here’s everything we know about Trump’s orders.


The executive orders aren’t a done deal just yet.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What Trump’s orders include 

The four executive actions include:

As yet, it’s unclear when the $400 paycheck will go into effect, if it will apply retroactively to July 24, the date the $600 benefit expired under the CARES Act, or if it will face legal challenges that might delay or derail it. 

Will Trump’s executive action automatically become law?

It might seem like executive orders from the president are the final word — since the actions aren’t subject to congressional approval — but it’s more complicated than that. The Constitution gives Congress control over federal spending, so Trump doesn’t have the legal authority to issue binding executive orders about how money should be spent during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Memoranda differ from executive orders in a few ways, including that they don’t require the Office of Management and Budget to issue a Budgetary Impact Statement.

An executive order can act like a federal law in some circumstances, but Congress can pass a new law to override the executive order. However, that new law would be subject to a presidential veto. This happened in 2019 when Trump declared a national emergency at the Mexico border to fund the wall. 

Since Trump is unilaterally seeking to use leftover or unspent FEMA funds to pay unemployment benefits, it’s possible his order could encounter legal challenges — and that could further slow the passage of a stimulus package.

When asked if he was concerned about the legality of an executive action during a press conference Friday, the president said, “No, not at all … well, you always get sued. Everything you do, you get sued.”

Trump’s payroll tax payment deferral could also be called into question. During Saturday’s press conference, Trump said that if he’s reelected in November, he’ll find a way to terminate the payroll tax. 

An extra complication here is the role payroll taxes play in funding other aspects of the economy — including Social Security and Medicare — as many have pointed out.


Talks over the stimulus package aren’t necessarily over yet.

Sarah Tew/CNET

How would an executive order differ from legislation?

So far, the executive actions signed by Trump will only cover the four topics out above, rather than the large scope of either the Democrats’ or Republicans’ stimulus proposals. Democrats have said that an executive order won’t go far enough

“[An executive order] will leave most people out, will not cover the broad expanse of what’s needed, will be litigated in court and awkward and difficult to implement,” Schumer told reporters Thursday. “It’s not a good choice at all. And [Republicans] admitted that in the room. They said, ‘That’s not a good choice.””

On Saturday, however, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “I support President Trump exploring his options to get unemployment benefits and other relief to the people who need them the most.”

Democrats worry that an executive order will be only a temporary fix. For example, suspending payroll tax, according to analysts, would only mean a larger payment for workers in a few months. Schumer said Democrats’ concerns extended to evictions and college loan deferrals.

In their joint statement issued on Saturday, Schumer and Pelosi also criticized the narrow focus of Trump’s action. “Not only does the President’s announcement not actually extend the eviction moratorium, it provides no assistance to help pay the rent, which will only leave desperate families to watch their debt pile higher.” 

They repeated their call for Democrats and Republicans to continue negotiations and agree on a more comprehensive solution.

For more information, we’ve looked at how soon you might get your second stimulus check and compared the HEALS, CARES and Heroes stimulus proposals.

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