Describing himself as a “wartime president” to fight an invisible enemy, President Donald Trump rarely used emergency powers to marshal essential medical supplies against the coronavirus epidemic. Trump also signed an aid package — which the Senate approved earlier Wednesday — that would guarantee sick workers sick leave.
Trump tapped his authority under the 40-year-old Defense Production Act to give the government more power to run production by private companies and to try to address shortages in masks, ventilators, and other supplies.
Still, he seemed to reduce the urgency of the decision, tweeting later that he “only signed the Defense Production Act to counter the Chinese virus. We need to implement it in a worst-case scenario in the future needed.”
“Hopefully, there will be no need,” he said, “but we are all in this together!”
As a mixed message, Trump took a series of other extraordinary steps to stabilize the nation, its day-to-day life suddenly and radically changed.
The Canada-US border, the world’s longest, was effectively closed, save for commerce and necessary travel, while the administration pushed its plan to send relief checks to millions of Americans.
Trump said he would expand the nation’s clinical trial capacity and deploy a naval hospital ship in New York City, which is fast becoming the epicenter of the epidemic, and another such vessel for the West Coast. And the Department of Housing and Urban Development will help a growing number of Americans to suspend foreclosure and eviction through April who loses jobs and face missing rent and mortgage payments.
But as Trump laid out efforts to help the economy, markets plummeted. Gone were near all the gains that the Dow Jones Industrial Average had made since Trump took office.
The administration announcements came on a fast-moving day of developments across the capital, its empty streets standing in contrast to the whirlwind of activity inside the grand spaces of the White House and the Capitol.
The Senate overwhelmingly passed a second coronavirus response bill, which Trump signed Wednesday night. The vote was a lopsided 90-8 despite worries by many Republicans about a temporary new employer mandate to provide sick leave to workers who get COVID-19. The measure is also aimed at making tests for the virus-free.
Meanwhile, the administration pushed forward its broad economic rescue plan, which proposes $500 billion in checks to millions of Americans, with the first checks to come April 6 if Congress approves.
The White House urged hospitals to cancel all elective surgeries to reduce the risk of being overwhelmed by cases. The president was pressed on why several celebrities, like professional basketball players, seemed to have easier access to diagnostic tests than ordinary citizens.
“Perhaps that’s the story of life,” Trump said. “I’ve heard that happens on occasion.”
Trump dismissed a suggestion from his own treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, that the nation could face 20% unemployment at least in the short term.
That’s an “absolute total worst-case scenario,” Trump said. “We’re no way near it.”
The government has told Americans to avoid groups of more than 10 people and the elderly to stay home. At the same time, a pointed reminder was given to millennials to follow the guidelines and avoid social gatherings. Trump likened the effort to the measures taken during World War II and said it would require national “sacrifice.”
“It’s a war,” he said. “I view it as a, in a sense, a wartime president. It’s a very tough situation.”
No longer able to run for reelection on a healthy economy, he was taking on the mantle of a wartime leader after played down the severity of the crisis for weeks.
The president also employed more nativist, us-vs-them rhetoric at the briefing, continuing his recent habit of referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” which has been sharply criticized as racist. “It’s not racist at all,” Trump said. “It comes from China, that’s all.”
He was asked about a report that a White House aide had referred to the virus as the “Kung flu” when talking to an Asian-American reporter, and Trump did not signal disapproval of the offensive term.
Trump later met nursing leaders and expressed “gratitude for those on the front lines in our war against the global pandemic” as he held out hope that the pandemic would be over soon.
“It’s been something, but we’re winning, and we will win,” he said. “It’s a question of when and I think it’s going to go quickly. We hope it’s going to go quickly.”
A limited number of people gathered around a large table; their chairs spread apart in a display of social distancing.
The Defense Production Act gives the president broad authority to shape the domestic industrial base so that it is capable of providing essential materials and goods needed in a national security crisis. The law allows the president to require businesses and corporations to give priority to and accept contracts for materials and services necessary.
The executive order issued by Trump gives Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar the authority to determine “the proper nationwide priorities and allocation of all health and medical resources, including controlling the distribution of such materials … in the civilian market, for responding to the spread of COVID-19 within the United States.” It also applies to specific health services.
Trump also said he would soon invoke a rarely used federal statute that would enable the U.S. to tighten controls along the southwest border because of the new coronavirus, based on a recommendation of the U.S. surgeon general.
The president said the law, intended to halt the spread of infectious diseases, would give authorities “great latitude” to help control the outbreak. Earlier, U.S. officials told The Associated Press that the administration would invoke the law to immediately turn back all people who cross the border illegally from Mexico and to refuse people the right to claim asylum there.
More than eight weeks after the first U.S. case of the virus was detected, the federal government is still struggling to conduct wide scale testing for the virus. Compounding the problem, laboratories are reporting shortages of supplies needed to run the tests, which officials urged to be given to those most likely to have COVID-19.
Deborah Birx, who is coordinating the White House response, cautioned that there had been a backlog of swabs waiting in labs to be tested, and as that backlog clears, “we will see the number of people diagnosed dramatically increased” in the next few days.
Asked about the administration’s mixed messages when it comes to the threat posed by the virus, Birx said new studies about how long the virus could be contagious on hard surfaces helped the administration overcome the tightening of recommendations on social. “None of us really understood that” that, he said. “We are still working out how much human transmission is from and how much it is from the surface.” She said, “Don’t risk yourself for outdoor surfaces.”
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illnesses, including pneumonia.
Most people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness improve in about two weeks, while those with more severe disease may take three to six weeks to recover.
As it tries to get its message out to the public, the White House said a series of advertisements, digital, and television, would facilitate President and First Lady Melania Trump urged Americans to follow the guidelines. Birx also renews its phone for young people to follow federal instructions and stop meeting in groups.
He said that there have been “reports concerning” young people seriously ill from France and Italy. The task force last week urged more youthful generations to refrain from visiting bars and restaurants and avoid groups of more than 10 people.
Birex said, ‘We cannot do these big celebrations that continue throughout the country for people away from work. He said the federal epidemic task force had not seen any “significant mortality” in children so far.
Several Coronavirus-related health scares in the White House, with the president himself exposing at least three people who later tested positive. Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said Wednesday that she had done a negative test for the virus. McDaniel, who met with the president and Senate Republicans last week, had previously come in contact with someone who tested positive.
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