ABC News bungles coverage of Trump executive orders on Social Security funding and coronavirus relief

From “both sides” to transparently fake deficit concerns — they’ve got it all

ABC News offered terrible coverage Monday morning of President Donald Trump’s new executive orders — including his promise to permanently end employees’ share of payroll taxes, which fund Social Security and Medicare — as well as depicting the negotiations over coronavirus economic relief as a both-sides narrative between Trump and congressional Democrats.

The Trump administration has been pushing to zero out the tax, pitching it since March as a supposed economic stimulus measure to counter the financial downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic. As Los Angeles Times’ Michael Hiltzik noted, “a payroll tax cut would be poorly targeted, delivering the most help to households least in need. It would have only a diluted impact over time. And it would undermine Social Security, the program most dependent on the payroll tax.” Trump’s proposal to permanently eliminate the tax also would not actually help the unemployed, nor would it solve the underlying lack of confidence in public health that has ground so much of economic activity to a halt.

During the August 10 edition of Good Morning America, ABC News senior national correspondent Terry Moran portrayed the response to Trump’s orders as a partisan issue, claiming that “Democrats are bashing the president’s moves,” but “Trump dismissed the Democratic criticism, suggesting his executive actions might help reignite those failed congressional negotiations, which collapsed with nothing to show after weeks of talks.”

In fact, House Democrats passed a comprehensive relief package all the way back in May, known as the HEROES Act. Senate Republicans waited to engage with these proposals, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) did not unveil the Republican plan until the last week of July and included only roughly one-third of the aid spending covered by Democrats’ bill. In addition, The Wall Street Journal reported that Senate Republicans were split over whether to pursue continued stimulus measures, with possibly half of the caucus even opposing McConnell’s bill.

Video file

Citation From the August 10, 2020, edition of ABC’s Good Morning America

Moran also included the fact that this tax is tied to Social Security and Medicare, but nevertheless phrased this more as a Democratic line of attack: “Those payroll taxes help fund Social Security, and Democrats and their presumptive nominee Joe Biden immediately jumped on President Trump's promise right there, saying he's out to destroy the Social Security program.”

Though Moran noted that some Republicans had joined in criticizing Trump’s proposal, he also continued an ongoing media narrative of depicting the current impasse on coronavirus relief as the shared fault of both parties. 

“The bottom line here is that both Congress and the president, Democrats and Republicans, are failing to compromise and pass any new corona relief bill even while so many Americans suffer,” Moran declared.

“That is the bottom line,” replied anchor Robin Roberts.

In addition, Monday morning’s edition of ABC News political director Rick Klein’s The Note ran a headline “Trump power play collides with GOP’s old principles and new realities.” While acknowledging that some Republicans oppose taking much in the way of economic action, it also presented their objections as involving constitutional concerns about the powers of the presidency versus those of Congress:

Sen. Ben Sasse called it “unconstitutional slop,” in a statement referencing the “pen-and-phone theory of executive lawmaking” that conservatives once mocked former President Barack Obama for espousing.

A range of other Republican lawmakers reiterated their view that Congress, not the president, should be acting. One big reason Congress hasn't acted, of course, is that Republican senators have raised concerned about out-of-control spending and whether ideas the president favors -- ideas including a payroll-tax holiday and expanded unemployment benefits -- are sound policy at all.

The idea that Republicans might be concerned about Trump’s use of unrestrained executive power — and that this proposition should be taken seriously — might seem odd in the wake of the past year’s presidential impeachment. Trump openly asserted an absolute view of his presidential powers, and then renewed that approach further after his acquittal in the Republican-led Senate. But Klein takes the argument at face value, asserting that “Republicans are joining Democrats in questioning the wisdom and constitutionality of the president's actions.”

On top of that, this excerpt shows how mainstream media outlets continue to take Republicans’ alleged concerns about deficits seriously — though these concerns about “out-of-control spending” only become apparent whenever a Democratic policy proposal is on the agenda (in this case, expanded unemployment benefits). By contrast, conservative talk about deficits usually goes out the window during Republican administrations, with leading conservative media voices embracing a new narrative that deficits and the national debt no longer matter.

Indeed, the piece further stated that “Republicans also have to choose whether to support Trump's if-I-win promise of ‘permanent cuts’ to the taxes that fund Social Security and Medicare” — portraying this as a hard choice despite the fact that Trump and other Republicans have frequently called for Social Security benefits to be cut or for the whole system to be privatized.

Klein also recently pontificated on another long-running (and empty) pro-Trump narrative to be found in mainstream media, that of constantly looking out for the president’s “new tone” during any kind of public crisis.