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Trump takes new executive action as health officials warn cases will surge

In the face of a growing medical crisis, President Trump escalated both his rhetoric and his policy response Wednesday. He referred to the novel coronavirus as “the invisible enemy” and vowed to treat the fight against it as “a war.” Meanwhile, the Senate passed a sweeping pandemic aid package. William Brangham reports, and Lisa Desjardins and Yamiche Alcindor join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The coronavirus pandemic is hitting new highs and lows tonight. Infections in the U.S. have jumped to 7,700 confirmed cases, with 133 reported deaths.

    And another wave of selling overwhelmed Wall Street, as the Dow industrials fell 6 percent.

    Meanwhile, President Trump invoked new powers to address the crisis.

    We begin with this report from William Brangham.

  • President Donald Trump:

    It's the invisible enemy. That's always the toughest enemy, the invisible enemy, but we are going to defeat the invisible enemy.

  • William Brangham:

    President Trump, describing the fight against the coronavirus as a war, announced new sweeping measures to mobilize the country.

  • President Donald Trump:

    So we will be invoking the We'll be invoking the Defense Production Act.

  • William Brangham:

    The Defense Production Act was first enacted during the Korean War, and it allows the government to force companies to sign contracts or fulfill orders deemed critical for national defense.

    This also comes as public health officials warned that the official count of confirmed infections will shoot up dramatically in coming days.

    Dr. Deborah Birx, who's helping coordinate the response, says this is because much quicker viral testing is starting to roll out.

  • Deborah Birx:

    We will see the number of people diagnosed dramatically increase over the next four to five days. I know some of you will use that to raise an alarm that we are worse than Italy because of our slope of our curve.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Birx also urged young Americans to follow CDC and White House guidelines and avoid large gatherings, like here on Miami Beach today, even if they feel fine and show no obvious symptoms.

  • Deborah Birx:

    I'm not only calling on you to heed what's in the guidance, but to really ensure that each and every one of you are protecting each other.

    And so we cannot have these large gatherings that continue to occur throughout the country, for people who are off work to then be socializing in large groups and spreading the virus.

  • William Brangham:

    President Trump today also announced today that the Department of Housing and Urban Development will not enforce evictions or foreclosures until April.

  • Woman:

    The bill is passed.

  • William Brangham:

    And on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the United States Senate approved a $100 billion coronavirus response bill. The bill, negotiated between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, contains emergency funds to provide sick pay for workers and free viral testing.

    It is Congress' latest legislative step, as it also considers ways to provide relief for small businesses and for workers and to stabilize the roller-coaster financial markets.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.:

    The men and women who pour their entire lives into small businesses do not need even more obstacles. They need help. They need a lifeline. They need to know that Congress understands the historic obstacles they're facing, and that we have their back as well.

  • William Brangham:

    But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said this pandemic demands an even greater response.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.:

    Democrats are proposing a Marshall Plan for our public health infrastructure. The sooner we act on it, the better.

  • William Brangham:

    Meanwhile, President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced today the U.S.-Canada border will be closed to nonessential travel.

    Trudeau spoke from his home in Ottawa.

  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau:

    These measures will last in place as long we feel that they need to last.

  • William Brangham:

    President Trump said today the U.S. is not moving to close down the border with Mexico.

    And across the United States today, daily lives remain stalled. There are now confirmed infections in all 50 states. The normally busy Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco is empty, after local officials ordered roughly eight million Californians to shelter in place.

    Here, a shopping mall in suburban Virginia closed indefinitely. Domestic air travel is collapsing, too. This is a terminal at Salt Lake City's airport two weeks ago. And here it is on Monday. And the same with American car manufacturing. Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler are all suspending production at U.S. plants until March 30.

    In Las Vegas, America's gambling mecca has gone quiet, after the state took the unprecedented move last night of closing businesses, including hotels and casinos, in the state for 30 days.

  • Governor Steve Sisolak:

  • Governor Steve Sisolak:

    This is only common sense. At a time when people are getting sick from simply being near others is not the time for gyms to remain open. This is not the time for casinos to remain open.

  • William Brangham:

    And other nations around the world are taking similar measures, shutting down public spaces to limit the spread of this virus.

    In Antwerp, empty train stations and streets, as Belgium's prime minister today joined many European leaders and implemented a nationwide lockdown.

  • Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes (through translator):

    Citizens are required to stay at home in order to avoid maximum contact outside their immediate family, except to go to work, essential travel, going to the doctor, the grocery store, the post office, the bank, the pharmacy, to get fuel or to help people in need.

  • William Brangham:

    But traffic jams stretched for miles across other parts of Europe today, including the German-Polish border, after the European Union yesterday announced it is closing their external borders to non-E.U. citizens.

    And in hard-hit Italy, nearly 30,000 people have now tested positive, and over 2,500 people have died.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we turn again to our Lisa Desjardins and Yamiche Alcindor.

    Yamiche, to you, first.

    The president today invoked the Defense Production Act. He also enacted border restrictions. What do we know about how these measures are going to be used to fight this virus?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The president today said that he sees himself as a wartime president.

    And with that in mind, he said he was taking several emergency steps needed to stem the flow and stem the outbreak of the coronavirus. So he said he was going to be signing the Defense Production Act.

    Now, this act would allow the federal government to direct American manufacturers to produce items needed to fight the virus, including masks or gloves or gowns. Now, the president said he signed that just in case he had to invoke it in worst-case scenario. Only a few minutes ago, he tweeted that.

    So, it isn't that this is happening right now. The other thing to note, though, what is happening right now is that the president is putting in new travel restrictions for the northern and southern border. That's the borders with Canada in Mexico.

    Here's a bit of what the president is going to be doing and is doing just put up there. The president is going to be enforcing something that is an immediate removal of anyone who's crossing those borders that are undocumented. People aren't going to take being taken to facilities or courts. There's going to be no due process.

    People are just going to be immediately removed. The other thing is, the people that are exempt are Americans and Canadians and people with proper documents. That means people with green cards or with work permits. They're going to be allowed to come in.

    And, last, this does not include goods and trade. The president made it clear today that he doesn't want this to impact the trade with Mexico and Canada. But there are people, of course, that are pushing back, saying that this is unlawful.

    But the president and the Trump administration say they're happy and willing to fight this in court, if needed, because they say that this is a public health need and that the borders need to be shut down, at least to the people that I just described.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yamiche, today at the briefing at the White House, you asked the president how the White House is characterizing this virus and how long it's going to last.

    Tell us about that exchange and what he said.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the president has been getting pushback for using the term Chinese virus.

    And there was also a White House official who referred to the coronavirus as kung flu.

    So I questioned the president about whether or not he thought those terms were wrong. Here's what he said.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    A person at the White House used the…

  • President Donald Trump:

    No, just the term.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    … term Kung flu. My question is…

  • President Donald Trump:

    Kung flu?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    … do you think that's wrong? Kung flu. And do you think using the term Chinese virus, that that puts Asian Americans at risk, that people might target them?

  • President Donald Trump:

    No, not at all. No, not at all. I think they probably would agree with it 100 percent. It comes from China. There's nothing not to agree on.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Now, the president said that he wants to continue to use the word and term Chinese virus because he thinks, yes, this virus started in China. He also says China was trying to blame the United States and U.S. service members for the virus starting in China.

    The other thing to note is, I questioned the president about whether or not the coronavirus outbreak in the United States might last as long as 18 months. That's what some reports have been saying. The president said that's not correct. He doesn't think it's going to last that long.

    But Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin did say that the unemployment rate could go up to 20 percent. That, of course, would be a big, big number. And people are very, very worried about that, but the president saying the federal government is doing all that it can do so that those things will not happen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Interesting.

    And so, Lisa, now over to you. Things are moving really fast at the Capitol in terms of figuring out ways to help people, to help businesses.

    Tell us where everything stands right now.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Judy, I think, overall, think of the Capitol as a place that is trying to shore up a dam that is cracking in the middle of an earthquake.

    They are trying to deal with now layoffs starting to come in with — to the economy, at the same time as they know future problems are going to be worse. And they're not sure what tools exactly can fix these problems.

    So let's go over exactly where we are. First of all, today, as William reported, the Senate passed the Families First Act. That goes to the president now. A reminder again, that helps deal with sick time for people who have the virus or are quarantined, and family leave for those caring for children at home, as well as testing and some food aid.

    Now, what's next is that $1 trillion stimulus plan. It could be more than a trillion dollars, Judy. And today, as Republicans gathered to try and figure out their plan, outside came a new idea from Senators Lindsey Graham and Mitt Romney. They would like to focus on unemployment insurance to the tune, Judy, of perhaps 75 percent of people's salaries, up to $80,000.

    That's just one idea. But it looks like that idea of looking out for those who lose their jobs is emerging as a top factor in any of the next plans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, on the part of that that addresses small businesses, what do you see emerging there?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This seems to be the most clear consensus point in all of the parties, is that small businesses who may already be worried about going out of business this week need more help.

    There is a plan emerging from Senators Rubio and Collins in the Republican Party that would actually — they would give federal loans to those small businesses to help them continue to operate.

    So long as those businesses use that money for payroll and operations, Judy, this plan would later forgive those loans, essentially make this a grant to perhaps thousands and thousands of small businesses around the country. The cost of that Judy, $300 billion.

    But there is clear concern for small businesses, more than almost any other sector of the economy right now here in the U.S. Capitol.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So interesting.

    All right, so I want to ask both of you, quickly, because you have both been reporting on this. And that is Bernie Sanders. Obviously, he came in behind in these latest primaries that took place yesterday.

    Both of you have been in touch with his campaign.

    Yamiche, what are you hearing about what his next plans are?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the Bernie Sanders campaign and the senator himself have been pushing back very hard on the idea that he is ending his campaign any time soon. They said that any reports of that are false.

    I have been talking to sources that are close to Bernie Sanders who say that he recognizes that his path is nearly impossible to winning the nomination, but that he wants to look at how he can possibly push Joe Biden further to the left and push some more progressive ideals.

    But, today, the senator was very, very angry, in a way that I haven't seen him in the years that I have been covering him, because he even sent an expletive to a reporter who was asking him about whether or not he would be ending his campaign sometime soon.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Lisa?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Yes.

    And, Judy, I was there, actually. That was part of a conversation I was having with Senator Sanders. I asked Senator Sanders for comments on the race. He said, no comment.

    I moved on to ask him about the pandemic.

    He had a lengthy conversation with me, I think the longest he's spoken to a reporter in a few days, about his concerns with the pandemic. That's obviously a top priority to him.

    Other reporters joined in, asked him again about the race, asked him repeatedly. And that was when he had that pushback. He's turned to them and said, why are you asking me this? We're in the middle of a — and then he used a strong word — crisis.

    Now, it seems to me that he obviously is very focused on the crisis. I asked him about the election and the crisis. And that clearly is on his mind too. He has a lot of concerns about how the election goes forward.

    What he himself does, unclear, but he is factoring in the pandemic into all of his thoughts. That much, we can say.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The only thing better than having one of you reporting on Bernie Sanders is having both of you reporting on him.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you, Lisa. And thank you, Yamiche.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We appreciate it.

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