Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin warned Democrats on Sunday that any legal challenge to President Trump’s recent executive orders would delay financial assistance to millions of Americans as he defended the move to drop federal unemployment benefits from $600 a week to $400.

“We’ve cleared with the office of legal counsel all these actions,” Mnuchin said on “Fox News Sunday.” “If the Democrats want to challenge us in court and hold up unemployment benefits to those hardworking Americans that are out of a job because of COVID, they’re going to have a lot of explaining to do.”

Trump on Saturday signed executive orders to defer payroll taxes and replace an expired unemployment benefit with a lower amount after negotiations with Congress on a new coronavirus rescue package collapsed.

The president’s order calls for up to $400 payments each week, one-third less than the $600 people had been receiving. How many people would receive the benefit and how long it might take to arrive were open questions.


The previous unemployment benefit, which expired on Aug. 1, was fully funded by Washington, but Trump is asking states to now cover 25 percent. He is seeking to set aside $44 billion in previously approved disaster aid to help states, but said it would be up to states to determine how much, if any of it, to fund, so the benefits could be smaller still.

When questioned why the administration lowered the federal unemployment benefits, Mnuchin said it was “a fair compromise” and that the White House had offered to continue paying the $600 a week while they negotiated with Democrats. “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace countered by saying the administration had offered to extend the $600 benefits by one week.

“Actually we extended it to two weeks,” Mnuchin said.

Mnuchin also argued that Trump’s proposed payroll tax suspension would not lead to reductions in Social Security payments – an issue raised by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and other Democrats.

“The president in no way wants to harm those trust funds, so they’d be reimbursed just as they always have in the past when we’ve done these types of things,” Mnuchin said.


Trump’s executive orders, which he signed Saturday from his country club in New Jersey, have been met with sharp resistance from Democrats, and even some Republicans, as unconstitutional and ultimately unhelpful to Americans struggling financially during the coronavirus pandemic.

The use of executive actions drew criticism from Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska. “The pen-and-phone theory of executive lawmaking is unconstitutional slop," said Sasse, a member of the Senate's Judiciary and Finance panels. He added that Trump "does not have the power to unilaterally rewrite the payroll tax law. Under the Constitution, that power belongs to the American people acting through their members of Congress.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.