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What the U.S. federal government is doing to fight COVID-19

In the U.S., nearly 100 people have died from novel coronavirus among 5,200 confirmed cases. With the infection expected to spread more broadly and businesses and organizations shutting down, what is the latest federal government response? Lisa Desjardins, Yamiche Alcindor and Nick Schifrin join Judy Woodruff to discuss efforts by Congress, the White House and the Departments of Defense and State.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For the latest on the federal response, we turn now to our Lisa Desjardins, who's been tracking the fast-moving developments on Capitol Hill, and Yamiche Alcindor, who's following all of the news coming out of the White House.

    Hello to both of you.

    So, Yamiche, first, what details do we have at this point about the administration's proposals, this economic stimulus package they have been rolling out?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, this morning, there was a major announcement at the White House.

    President Trump and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin both said that they are backing a plan to give every single American, except for maybe wealthy Americans, checks, individual checks, to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.

    Now, they said that millionaires might be exempt from that. But the president says people are hurting and they need to get cash now. Now, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has said that he thinks that this could happen as early as in the next two weeks if Congress act quickly enough.

    He said that the checks could be up to $1,000 each — for each person. The president, though, has also been on the phone with executives from industries like the restaurant industry, the cruise ship industry, supply chain industries, and he wants to have billions of dollars go to those industries as well.

    Now, the White House is also pressing Congress, they say, to pass the bill that was passed in the House. They want GOP senators now who have some issues with the bill on the House side, they want them to just vote for the bill, so they can get that out the way, so that they can start working on this trillion-dollar stimulus package.

    But it was remarkable to hear the president say that he wants everyday Americans to get a check in the mail to deal with this virus.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Lisa, separately, proposals by the Congress to do something about all this. What are you hearing there?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    There are competing plans.

    The Republicans and the White House want this kind of payment to individuals. Democrats say, wait a minute, we have a different plan. We think other things are the priority for the big stimulus deal coming.

    Let's look at what Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer was proposing today, $750 billion, near to what the White House is talking about in amount,, but different in where it would go. First, $400 billion would go to hospitals for medical supply, to beef up health workers in sort of rural hospitals all around the country.

    Then, the rest of it, $350 billion, in Democrats' plan, would go to the unemployed, to workers who've been laid off or who are losing time on the job.

    Now, could they talk about including a payment in this deal? Chuck Schumer did not close the door to that, Judy. But the truth is, these negotiations are going to be tricky. And I asked him, maybe there's yet another bill after this. He said, yes, there could now be multiple stimulus bills coming down the pike.

    Note that, in the Democrats' bill and in the White House proposal, there's not specific money for industries that have been affected, like the airlines. People might get money in their pocket, but are they going to buy an airline ticket soon? All of this is what Congress is trying to work out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yet to come.

    And, lest we forget, it seems like a long time ago, but it was just a few days ago that the House passed a relief bill, stimulus bill.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What's happened to that?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Right.

    As Yamiche reported, the White House has been pressing along with House Democrats to get that through. And, in fact, I can report now that Leader McConnell has said it will pass through the Senate. It's a question of when, in the next two to three days, as soon as tonight. It's a procedural issue.

    McConnell told me he has told Republicans to gag and swallow it. They don't love it.

    But I want to review — it's very important. This will be the first direct help for Americans affected by the virus passed by Congress. Let's look at what's in it. This is the Families First Act. This will allow for two weeks of paid sick time for people directly affected by the virus, three months of leave time for those who have to care for a child whose school has been closed.

    Now,businesses with fewer than 500 workers only must account for this. Larger businesses do not have to pay for this sick time. That's a problem Democrats have with this, a concession they made.

    All of the businesses will have to pay this sick time up front. They will receive the tax credit later. That is also a problem that the lawmakers are hoping to address soon.

    One more thing, Judy, I want to go through the timing ahead, because I know it's confusing, over all these bills. First, in the next three days, pass that Families First Act for the people who are sick, basically, getting them some help with their sick time and child care.

    Then, the Senate Republicans plan to work on their own on a possible stimulus bill, come up with their idea. Then Republicans say they will get together with the White House and Democrats to negotiate. Democrats say, that's ridiculous. Let's just start the negotiating now.

    But Leader McConnell wants his Republicans to have time to come up with their own plan. How long will that take? We don't know.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meantime, a race against time.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Yamiche, separately, at the White House, they looked at public health proposals.

    Tell us what they're saying in that regard.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the president said he's approaching the coronavirus outbreak like we are now a nation at war.

    He said that this feels like wartime and that Americans should be looking at this as if they can do anything that they possibly can for their nation. He says, be vigilant, do what you can, to help this virus outbreak stop in this country.

    On testing, specifically something that's been on the mind of a lot of Americans every single day, the White House says that the FDA, which is a large governing body that has looked at — that looks at drugs and testing, they are now giving some states the ability to look at and develop and approve their own testing, so that the states, like Massachusetts and other places, can come up with their tests and use those tests.

    The president, though, has been getting some pushback when it comes to public health, because he's been referring to the virus as a Chinese virus. And there are also some White House officials who call it the kung-flu virus today.

    There are a lot of critics of the president who say that that is racist language, that that's xenophobic. The president, though, says that that is accurate language to use. He's saying that he's pushing back on China because they're saying that U.S. service members were the ones who brought this over from China.

    But what we see here, of course, is the president pushing back pretty hard. But this is a real cultural issue here that the president's having to deal with, as he's also trying to tell people, stay safe, stay vigilant.

    But people are saying also don't target Asian Americans in this country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just, finally, at least at a time when everybody's being told to stay home, how is Congress actually going to keep working through this?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I asked Leader McConnell about this.

    There is a scenario in which the Senate, after it passes whatever next stimulus bill, takes some time off from Washington. He's not willing to commit to that yet. He will say that the rules of the Senate will not change.

    Even though Democrats are interested in the idea of remote voting, Leader McConnell said no. Instead, what they would do is lengthen out a roll call vote, imagine this, so that senators would come in smaller groups to the floor of the Senate, two, three, four, five at a time, rather than in groups of 10 or more, an extraordinary change, but Mitch McConnell says no rule change would he allow in the Senate, no remote voting.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Interesting, trying to figure out the politics of that.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Yes, indeed.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lisa Desjardins, thank you very much.

    And now, for the wider response by the Departments of State and Defense, our Nick Schifrin is here with me now.

    So, Nick, it was both the secretary of state and the secretary of defense who had news conferences today. What did they have to say?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, first Secretary of Defense Mark Esper laid out how the Department of Defense can try and help battle this virus in the U.S., millions of masks to be given to Health and Human Services from military stockpiles, ventilators as well.

    Military testing labs are going to be opened up for civilian testing. Governors, of course, beginning to ask the National Guard for help.

    And the Department of Defense has been pretty transparent, Judy, about how this virus has impacted them, 39 positives across the department, 500 tests, how they have been protecting service members, civilians, dependents. There are severe travel restrictions.

    If you're a part of the Department of Defense right now, you cannot move, essentially, even inside the United States beyond the base or your home, social distancing inside the Pentagon. Even the secretary of defense and his deputy cannot see each other in the same room.

    As for the Department of State, there's a handful of cases, but we really don't know much beyond that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Nick, we know the State Department has been pretty outspoken about China, China's role in all this, including talking about propaganda.

    What are they saying right now?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes. So, Yamiche referred to this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, let's just break that — break this down.

    There's been a concerted effort by the Chinese government to stir anger about the United States inside China and convince the rest of the world that none of this is China's fault. And to that specifically, there was a tweet late last week by one of the spokespeople of the Foreign Ministry. He wrote: "It might be the U.S. Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan."

    He wrote that in English and Mandarin. It was retweeted by embassies of China and ambassadors all over the world. U.S. officials and the experts I talk to say this is an effort to deflect blame. The virus originated in Wuhan. It has nothing to do with the U.S. Army.

    But officials in Wuhan covered up the virus. And Chinese people across the country widely criticized their own government. So, the officials I'm talking to see this as a kind of diversion to internal criticism, a kind of crackdown that Xi Jinping is doing, but also a diversion for the worldwide impact that you're going to be seeing.

    And so, on Friday, we saw the Pentagon spokeswoman, Alyssa Farah, write on Twitter: "This is a communist part of China, has chosen to promulgate false and absurd conspiracy theories."

    And then you saw yesterday the secretary of state releasing a statement about strong U.S. objections to the efforts to shift blame for COVID-19 to the United States, so the U.S. pushing back on this hard.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And then, I guess in somewhat connection, they have been evicting foreign journalists. And there was more on that today.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The connection is the crackdown. The connection is the unwillingness of the Chinese Communist Party to accept any kind of responsibility and to really crack down on any kind of blame inside.

    This was the largest expulsion of foreign journalists in China since Mao, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Voice of America journalists all evicted from the country. China says this is in response to U.S. moves, including capping personnel of state-run media here in the United States, and designating that state-run media as foreign missions.

    But, again, it is part of Xi Jinping's crackdown on criticism, especially now, especially at a moment when we are dealing with the impact of a coronavirus that did start in Wuhan.

    And it is less a response to U.S. moves than a real sense that this is a silencing of criticism, especially now, at a key moment, as Secretary of State Pompeo said today.

  • Secretary Mike Pompeo:

    I regret China's decision today to further foreclose the world's ability to conduct the free — free press operations that, frankly, would be really good for the Chinese people, really good for the Chinese people in these incredibly challenging global times, where more information, more transparency are what will save lives.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Judy, the fear is that the U.S.-China relationship is getting worse right now, at the time that the world is facing an economic and medical crisis.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As if we needed another issue.

    All right, Nick Schifrin, thank you very much.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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