You may be curious why the administration doesn’t simply take its time and make sure that the program, which would surely be received gratefully by senior citizens, is implemented effectively and smoothly. Except you’re probably not actually curious about that because you recognize what’s happening: Trump wants this done before Election Day to capitalize on that goodwill in the form of votes.
None of this is subtle. Sure, a White House spokesman told Politico that the plan “has nothing to do with politics.” It’s just that the team is trying to figure out how to make it happen before Nov. 3, a date with no special significance whatsoever.
When this was first proposed, the New York Times reported that pharmaceutical companies balked at the idea of distributing what they referred to pejoratively as “Trump cards”: cash handouts tied explicitly to the president. But Trump’s team made very clear that the cards would not bear Trump’s name, perish the thought.
According to Politico’s new reporting, the cards will instead be accompanied by a letter signed by Trump. No politicking here, no sir. It’s not as though Trump is trailing among voters over 65, a group he won in 2016. Were that the case, one would think that he’d release some sort of video explicitly focused on seniors, maybe calling them his favorite people in the world. Maybe putting “favorite” in all-caps, to really emphasize it.
The issue here isn’t only that Trump’s clearly trying to leverage the government in ways that will benefit him personally, the sort of thing that might get a fella impeached. What’s more remarkable is how expensive it is — how expensive his cumulative efforts to leverage the presidency to aid his campaign will turn out to be.
Here is a brief shopping receipt.
$19 million. Those letters which the administration hopes to send out with the drug-benefit cards aren’t free. Documents obtained by Politico estimate that sending them out to the country’s 39 million Medicare beneficiaries will cost $19 million, or about 48 cents apiece.
$7.8 billion. Then there’s the value of the cards themselves. If each of those 39 million people gets $200, as planned, the costs add up quickly: nearly $8 billion in costs to the government. The money would be paid out of Medicare’s trust fund.
$72.4 million. There are other costs, too, like buying and activating the cards and providing phone-based support for their use. The proposal obtained by Politico puts the price tag for these additional items at over $72 million, most of it in fiscal 2021, which began Oct. 1.
That’s about $7.9 billion — just for the drug-benefit card program. But that is by no means the only way in which Trump is leveraging government money in an obvious attempt to influence the election.
$11.6 billion. After spending years downplaying the damage done to Puerto Rico after it was hit by Hurricane Maria in 2017, Trump announced last month that he was providing the island with $9.6 billion to repair its electrical grid and $2 billion more to rebuild schools and other facilities. Again, this is more than three years after the hurricane hit and after he repeatedly complained about how much aid the island had received. But there are a lot of Puerto Rican voters in Florida, a state Trump almost certainly needs to win if he hopes to be reelected.
More than $1 million. In the wake of the economy’s crumpling at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, the Department of Agriculture distributed 75 million boxes of food to families to ensure food security. Some percentage of those boxes included letters signed by Trump, though it’s unclear how many and how much the letters cost. Assume that a third of the boxes included letters which cost 5 cents to print (almost certainly a lowball figure) and the total tops $1.2 million.
Around $43 million. In addition to ensuring that Trump’s name appeared on stimulus checks the government disbursed at the outset of the pandemic, the government went out of its way to ensure that those receiving the stimulus electronically also knew whom to thank. An estimated 90 million such letters were sent. If we assume the costs were the same as the drug-benefit card letters, that’s about $43 million in costs.
$0 to $400 billion. Another Trump proposal aimed at dampening the effects of the pandemic was to suspend payroll taxes until the end of the year (read: after November), thereby putting more money in people’s pockets. Such a plan would have cost the government an estimated $400 billion. But Trump’s proposal also had those taxes being repaid next year, meaning that, on net, there wouldn’t be a cost to the government.
Trump had a solution for that.
“If I’m victorious on Nov. 3, I plan to forgive these taxes and make permanent cuts to the payroll tax,” he said in September. So vote for Trump — or you have to repay all the taxes that were withheld.
For obvious reasons, many employers declined to participate in the proposal.
$23.2 billion. After Trump announced new tariffs on products manufactured in China, China retaliated by imposing tariffs on American goods, including agricultural products. That was a blow to farmers, so Trump took money from his tariffs — money mostly paid by American consumers — and distributed it back to farmers through the Market Facilitation Program. From 2018 to 2020, that program provided $23.2 billion to farmers. An analysis of those payments conducted by The Post in 2019 found that 9 in 10 counties which voted for Trump received some benefit from the program, with counties that flipped from blue to red in 2016 being slightly more likely to benefit.
Priceless. Since he took office, Trump and his team have largely ignored a law prohibiting the use of public resources for campaigning. That includes things like advocating political positions while acting in an official capacity, or, say, having your staff do prep work so you can accept your party’s nomination while standing on the South Lawn of the White House.
Even beyond that law, though, Trump has eagerly used his position for political purposes. Not only the convention speech, but the elements of his convention program that showed him pardoning a former prisoner or naturalizing new citizens. He rarely respects any boundary between his official duties and his campaign, blending formal White House events with his electoral patter. There’s value in his ability to use his office to boost his campaign, but one can’t put a price tag on the more abstract instances of his doing so.
There are other examples of the government suddenly taking an interest in making unusual points in politically useful places. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for example, announced last week that it was buying six billboards in Pennsylvania, blaming sanctuary policies in the state for allowing wanted criminals to go free. Just a random decision to advertise a central component of Trump’s campaign platform in a state he barely won four years ago, nothing more to read into that, I’m sure.
Setting situations like that aside, a tally of the items above yields an impressive total: nearly $43 billion, excluding that $400 billion payroll tax deferral. All yielding an obvious political benefit to Trump. At times, that benefit may have been more tangential than direct, but by now we’d be demonstrating remarkable naivete were we to assume the effect was entirely unintended.