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Can Congress, Trump put pandemic response ahead of politics?

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are working on a multi-billion dollar novel coronavirus aid package to help the Americans hit hardest by the pandemic. They, along with Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, also weighed in on President Trump’s response to the crisis. Lisa Desjardins reports and joins Nick Schifrin, Yamiche Alcindor and Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we look now at some of the broader ripples and response with our own Nick Schifrin, who we just heard from, Lisa Desjardins, and Yamiche Alcindor.

    Hello to all three of you.

    So, Yamiche, I'm going to start with you. We are seeing all this disruption. How is the president handling it?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the president is facing a challenge like nothing he's ever seen before. And, of course, this country is facing a challenge like nothing it's ever seen before.

    I have been talking to sources, Democrats and Republicans, and they say American life is not going to look like normal American life for a long time. You have elderly couples crying in their cars afraid to go into grocery stores. You have people that can't go to football games, can't throw a round of football with their child because they're worried about whether or not the virus is in the air.

    And you have a president who is struggling, frankly, Judy, to really figure out what to do, with to how to calm people, because people in some cases don't trust what the president is saying.

    Just today on testing, something Americans are very, very concerned about, he is saying testing is going to be going quickly, we're all working well, this is going smoothly.

    And then you have the top health official saying, actually, testing is failing in this country, and we don't have drive-through testing.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    It's not as easy as other countries.

    So, what you have is a president who is trying to calm people's fears saying a bunch of things that health officials in his own administration are saying are wrong.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick, we heard some of this in your report a moment ago.

    But how — what else are you hearing from European officials about what the president said last night?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, European officials, anger is really palpable when you talk to them.

    One European Union official told me yesterday that the first time they heard about the possibility of the travel ban was when a Reuters story hit yesterday afternoon. They called the administration in the hours between that story and the speech. They never heard back.

    So they heard when he all heard, when the president started speaking. French, German, E.U. officials, I spoke to all of them, none of consulted before the speech. And they also wonder, by the way, why the United Kingdom was left off, Judy.

    Now, each of these officials see this in a larger context, of course. They cite candidate Trump calling the E.U. an economic foe. They talk about President Trump withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accord, and blaming Europe during impeachment for not helping Ukraine.

    But no European official I talked to today talked about retribution at all. As the E.U. statement today said, it's time for cooperation, not tit-for-tat measures.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Yamiche, how is the White House pushing back on what the Europeans are saying?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the president is doubling down on his decision to have these travel bans and have these travel restrictions go into effect.

    And the president is saying, well, you know what, the Europeans, when they tax us, they don't consult us. So he made it about trade. He made it about this tit for tat that he wants to think about as he's looking at our European allies.

    And this, of course, dovetails with the way that the president has really had a lot of his relationships with our European allies. He's talked about this American-first approach, and he's talking about this virus, calling it a foreign virus.

    But, of course, the coronavirus doesn't know any borders. There's no country that might not be touched by this. So what you have is the president really now having to face the fact that international ties, an international strategy is going to have to be something that happens in order for this to be tamed.

    And health officials in the president's own administration say there has to be international coordination for this all to go smoothly. But, again, the president's doing what he's done in past crises. And that's lash out at people and lash out at people who are living across the borders and living abroad.

    But, at this point, he's going to in some ways have to figure out how to change this tone, because there are people in his own administration who are worried.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, meantime, Americans are clearly worried, as we have been discussing, Lisa.

    Stepping back, you have been talking to a lot of folks today. Political leadership broadly, how is it looking at dealing with this?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, at this moment, Judy, I'm watching my phone to see if the White House and Congress, Speaker Pelosi specifically, have arrived at a deal first about how to handle workers, families, people who are going to have needs, whether it's food or paychecks, for the next few weeks or months.

    I think that deal could be coming any minute now. Watching my phone. But I will tell you, otherwise, trying to arrive at that deal and for leaders of the Capitol now, understanding the scope of this problem, today was a wild day on Capitol Hill.

    We put together this story looking at it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, the pressure couldn't be greater than what it is.

    All right, we will be back to you in just a minute.

    Right now, meantime, the — many Americans are talking about their concerns over how the government is responding to the pandemic, the ability to get testing, and how the U.S. response compares to other — to other countries.

    I think — I think we want to come back. My mistake here.

    We do want to come back to the Democratic presidential candidates.

    They weighed in today on the president's response.

    We have members of Congress, as Lisa just said, working on some sort of package that would address the pandemic.

    And Lisa has more on that.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    At the Capitol, a building now closed to the public, an eruption of recognizing the obvious: A mighty problem has arrived.

  • Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.:

    I think it's a wakeup call for the world.

  • Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.:

    The only question is, how many more cases?

  • Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.:

    Testing is the biggest challenge that we have.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Also obvious, Congress and the White House must act soon.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.:

    This will not be the same issue a week from now. It will be much worse. So, we need to be here in our seats addressing the issue and solving the problems that we know we can solve.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Trying to solve some problems, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have been on and off the phone trying to reach a deal for workers and families whose lives may be disrupted.

    Last night, President Trump announced executive action from the Oval Office, including a historic travel ban that came with some confusion.

  • President Donald Trump:

    To keep new cases from entering our shores, we will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days. The new rules will go into effect Friday at midnight.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Just an hour later, Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Ken Cuccinelli tweeted out an important clarification, that this doesn't apply to Americans, followed by a tweet from the president that it also doesn't apply to goods.

    Vice President Mike Pence downplayed this in morning interviews.

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    I don't think there was confusion. He made the decision on the spot, after hearing from all sides, that the best thing we could do was suspend all travel.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The president's plan has other elements. He is likely to declare a national emergency, which could free up more than $40 billion to help. He's starting to give loans to small businesses and asking Congress for $50 billion more to help them directly.

    And he wants Congress to pass a payroll tax cut to boost the entire economy.

    But, on Capitol Hill, the focus is on a much broader set of ideas proposed by House Democrats.

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.:

    It's about putting families first.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Speaker Pelosi is hoping to bring the White House on board Democrats' unprecedented plan.

    It would give workers affected by the virus two-thirds of their monthly pay, up to $4,000. Businesses would have to immediately provide 14 sick days to those affected. Small businesses would be reimbursed for that cost. And it would fund $1 billion aimed in help for food banks, low-income families facing school closures and meals for homebound seniors.

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi:

    The house is on fire. People are concerned about their — of course, their health and the health of their children. If they are losing their jobs because nobody's coming to the restaurant or whatever it is, then we have to be there with some help for them.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But Republicans on the Hill initially pushed back.

  • Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.:

    The bill that we saw that just came forth last night at 11:00 p.m. comes up short.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy said the bill adds too much bureaucracy and that Republicans are wary of one piece for workers, that it would require those 14 emergency sick days in any public health emergency, not just this one.

    He asked that Congress stay in session this week to work out a deal.

  • Rep. Kevin McCarthy:

    We shouldn't just take a rush just because there is a bill. We want to make sure it works in the process where we are going.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Just a few hours later, Senate Majority Leader McConnell announced via Twitter he is canceling next week's planned Senate recess to stay in Washington and deal with the issue.

    Outside of the Capitol, more evidence of the national shift, as presidential candidates spoke in studios, not before crowds.

    Former Vice President Biden was in Delaware, laying out how he believes a president should approach this crisis.

  • Former Vice President Joseph Biden:

    The White House should measure and report each day, each and every day, how many tests have been ordered, how many tests have been completed, and how many have tested positive.

    By next week, the number of tests should be in the millions, not the thousands. We should make every person in a nursing home available for testing. Every senior center or vulnerable population has to have easy access to the test.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    His Democratic opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders, also previewed how he would act as president, speaking in his home state of Vermont.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.:

    We need also in this economic crisis to place an immediate moratorium on evictions, on foreclosures, and on utility shutoffs, so that no one loses their home during this crisis and that everyone has access to clean water, electricity, heat, and air conditioning.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Sunday's debate between Biden and Sanders has been moved from Phoenix, Arizona, to Washington, D.C., where it will be held in a largely empty TV studio.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I'm back with Lisa, Yamiche, and Nick.

    Hello again.

    So, Lisa, you did say a minute ago that the White House, Congress close to a deal. Where do things stand right now?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    All right, texting with sources right now, I can tell you what looks like will be in this deal.

    And we expect the details of this tonight, depending on any possible snags. First of all, it does look like temporary sick leave, 14 days is the number they have been talking about, for anyone affected by the coronavirus.

    And I want to stress that's not just people who are sick or quarantined. They're talking about allowing that sick leave for parents of children who may be home from school. So this is a broad category. Sick leave looks like it's going to be in here, temporarily, for this disease.

    Then, also, some kind of wage relief. They're negotiating over the specifics now for people who go without their salary, have to stay home for all of these reasons.

    What is not in here, Judy, is a permanent kind of emergency sick leave. That's something that Democrats wanted. That's not going to be in here.

    What also is not in here, a payroll tax cut. We know the president wanted that. Yamiche has been reporting on it. Not going to be in here.

    And, Judy, I will tell you what the real fight is here. It's about the next bill. This bill is probably going to be easier, dealing with people who are affected directly. The next bill will be about stimulating the economy.

    That could come in a few weeks. And people on both sides, including the president, are trying to keep leverage, because they want to get their ideas on the table in that likely-to-be-larger deal.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The kind of thing maybe Liz Ann Sonders was pointing to that the investors are looking for.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right. That's right, the kind of big shock that the economy might need.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Yamiche, where is the White House? How are they coming down on this negotiation right now?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The White House and White House officials have been negotiating pretty much nonstop with Capitol Hill officials.

    And what I'm sensing from White House sources is that the president is leaning towards signing whatever ends up on his desk, because he's desperate in some ways to show the American people, here's what the government, the federal government in particular, is doing for you.

    Now, he did say today that he's settled on using the Stafford Act. Now, that's a national emergency bill that would free up about $42.6 billion.

    But even with that bill and what he can do unilaterally, what he's looking for is for Congress to help him out and for Congress to also have a bill that also does more than what he can do unilaterally.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, you also you — Yamiche, you were telling us, you have looked at — the White House is talking about the president's emergency powers, and basically the extent of his ability as president to make a difference right now.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    That's right.

    The president has limitations on what he can do. But I will say that the president has been saying a couple different things, including the fact that he might have restrictions on domestic travel.

    Today, he was asked whether or not he might consider doing something because California and Washington state were so hard-hit, I mean, are some of the hot areas. He said, if areas become — quote — "too hot," that he might — he might think of making some sort of domestic travel restrictions.

    The other thing to note is that the president himself is worried about whether or not he came into contact with anyone who might have the current virus or COVID-19.

    We should show our audience a picture of the president next to an aide to the president of Brazil. Here, there are reports that the president of Brazil now has tested negative for the coronavirus. But that's the president and the aide at Mar-a-Lago just within the last week or so.

    So, there are real worries that the vice president and the president might have been — might have had contact with these people. The White House, of course, is saying, though, that they are not being tested, the president or vice president are not being tested. They say they have never had any sort of extended interaction with people who have tested positive for the coronavirus.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that picture was just, as you said, over the weekend in Florida, the president and the vice president?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Yes, at Mar-a-Lago with someone who has tested positive.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Who has since tested positive.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:


  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, we will see.

    So, Nick, the Pentagon, there's been some restrictions placed on the movement of U.S. military members. What's going on here?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, so the U.S. government can't forbid U.S. citizens from traveling, but the Pentagon can control its own employees.

    And so for, active-duty, as well as civilians, who work for the Department of Defense, as of tomorrow, they will be banned from traveling to any country listed as level three. That not only includes places like China, South Korea, Iran, and Italy, but also most of Europe as of last night.

    And service members won't be allowed to travel there even on non-official travel. The military also announced it's scaling back some of the major exercises over the next few months. And, really, the large story here, Judy, is that the people, whether in the Defense Department or in the intelligence agencies, that are charged with protecting the country are now fearing or having to worry about protecting their own people from going to work.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, some of them are based in these countries, aren't they?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Some of them are based in these countries, and they simply can't leave, can't go in or out any country labeled as level three right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very quickly, Lisa, this is a situation where we're looking at Congress and the president and who's doing the job they need to be doing.

  • Lisa Desjardins:


    And I have to say, in the last few days, I have noticed that policy and real concern has seemed to override the politics that have dominated the Capitol. There are still politics involved, Judy, but it does seem like Congress has gotten the message in the last few days in a big way that they need to act as leaders now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Everyone's watching.

    Lisa Desjardins, Nick Schifrin, Yamiche Alcindor, thank you all.

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