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President Trump held a contentious news conference Friday in which he downplayed issues with testing for COVID-19 and promised further executive action to fight the pandemic. Meanwhile, the Senate is rushing to draft a third coronavirus relief bill -- but questions are being raised about personal financial decisions by some senators. Lisa Desjardins and Yamiche Alcindor join Judy Woodruff.
Wall Street is limping into the weekend, after its worst week since the 2008 meltdown.
Stocks sank today after New York state ordered workers to stay home, on top of California's statewide lockdown. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 913 points to close below 19174. The Nasdaq fell 271 points, and the S&P 500 fell 105.
For the week, the Dow lost 17 percent, the Nasdaq fell 12 percent, and the S&P 500 dropped 15 percent.
Now, to help walk us through how Washington is responding to all of this, I'm joined by our White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor, and our congressional correspondent, Lisa Desjardins.
So, Yamiche, to you first.
Going back to some of what William was reporting, what do we know now about testing, the availability of testing, and then what the White House is doing with regard to making more medical supplies available?
Well, there are two critical things and two critical challenges that the United States is facing right now as it relates to coronavirus.
The first is that the U.S. is not able, at this point, to meet the demand of testing. There are a lot of people who want to be tested and need to be tested for the coronavirus who are not being able to get those tests.
The second thing is that there are hospitals saying that they are facing dire shortages of medical equipment, things like masks and other equipment that they need to treat patients.
So, I put a question to the president that said, when will people, everyone who needs a test, be able to get a coronavirus test? Here's what he said:
President Donald Trump:
We inherited, we, meaning this administration, an obsolete, broken system, that wasn't meant for anything like this.
Now we have a system that you can see because, look, we're well into this, and nobody's even talking about it, except for you, which doesn't surprise me — which doesn't surprise me,
There are Americans, though, who say they have symptoms and they can't get tested. What do you say to Americans who are scared…
Yes, well, OK. I'm not — I'm not hearing it.
But we don't want everybody to go out and get a test, because there's no reason for it.
So, the president is saying that he has not heard of any Americans who have coronavirus symptoms who need a test, but aren't able to get a test.
We have heard from so many people who say that they do need a test and haven't been able to get one.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, an expert, a health expert, in this administration, said, no, very clearly, the United States is not able to meet that demand.
The other thing is the president saying he inherited a mess and he had to rebuild the entire system. Obama administration officials continue to stress that they left the president with a White House pandemic office, and he disbanded it in 2018.
The other thing to note is that the president's talking about having this Defense Production Act invoked, but the president was going back and forth, and he really never landed very clearly on whether or not he's actually directing companies to start making medical equipment.
Instead, he said that companies like General Motors, they want to start making medical equipment. But it's not clear whether or not the president is actually saying, you need to now start making medical equipment.
And, of course, that's very, very important for hospitals who are facing these shortages.
So, Yamiche, we saw that the president also got into somewhat of a back-and-forth, if you will, with reporters at that briefing today over — when he was asked about how the administration is handling all this.
This was probably one of the most contentious press conferences I have ever seen with the president. President Trump was angry. He was lashing out at reporters. Specifically, he was — specifically, he was talking about the idea that he felt aggrieved by NBC News' Peter Alexander.
He said that he was very angry at Peter for asking a question about whether or not he had a message for Americans who were scared. President Trump said that he was a nasty reporter, that that was a bad question. We have seen the president do this over and over again.
The other thing to note is that, for the first time possibly in modern history, a former White House press secretary was posing questions to the president that he used to work for. Sean Spicer was sitting next to me today in the White House Briefing Room.
So, it was very interesting to see the president lash out. The other thing is, of course, the president was in a much better mood when he was talking about the border changes that he's making.
He said: I have been trying to make a lot of changes, a lot of things that I wanted to do about undocumented immigrants. And now I'm able to do those things.
So, Lisa, let me turn to you now, because Congress clearly moving quickly, at speed we're not used to seeing, to try to come up with legislation to address not only the health questions that are out there, but also the economic questions.
I will tell you, Judy, all day today at the Capitol, the premises here is mostly abandoned, with the exception of a large number of White House officials and Cabinet secretaries, who, there were so many, you kind of almost just ran into them in the halls, because they're having meetings all across the Senate, to try and figure out a deal.
They're trying to get a draft proposal done by midnight tonight. And here's what we know about that, things that Yamiche have been reporting, but something new is a bigger focus on hospitals, maybe building new temporary hospitals to deal with those medical issues that Yamiche is raising and others are concerned about.
One piece that does seem to be cementing right now is that small business help. Let's look at where that stands right now for small businesses interested.
Here's the proposal as it stands at this moment. The idea would be to float hundreds of billions of dollars in loans that could be processed in days for small businesses that need it. The idea is that that could help for back pay retroactive to March 1,. For a business that's already have had to stop paying their workers, they could repay them with this deal.
And those loans would be forgiven if that small business uses that federal loan money for payroll or for lease money. Now, that's the part that seems to be kind of taken care of, agreed upon.
There is a real question, though, Judy, about unemployment benefits, those who are out of work who are not with a small business. There's a lot of — there are many senators who would like to increase that unemployment benefit by a lot.
But, today, if we look at what's happening with that, the idea of raising the unemployment check amount is running into a logistical problem. States, which actually operate the unemployment system, may not be able to handle that surge, they are telling Congress, and there could be a lag in trying to get that payment out.
So Congress is wrestling with a logistical issue when it comes to unemployment. This is where the idea of a direct payment to Americans comes in,probably $1,200 check or so. That is still very much on the table.
I want to also mention Speaker Pelosi is paying close attention to these talks, so that the House would be able to ring in very quickly. And the idea is to maybe vote on all of this by Monday. That seems incredibly optimistic to me.
But I want to say that is the official word from Senator McConnell's office. That is their hope.
Well, there are suggestions that there is going to be a giant increase in unemployment.
But, separately, Lisa on Capitol Hill, there are some other questions being raised about whether some members of Congress are profiting during this national emergency.
And Lisa has more on that.
Two U.S. senators under scrutiny and defending themselves, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia.
The Republicans sold off millions of dollars in stocks at different points in the weeks before global financial markets tanked. Here's what we know.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.:
It was a good presentation.
On January 24, the Senate was briefed about the coronavirus in a private, secure meeting with top health officials.
That same day, Loeffler's trading account began selling off stocks worth between $1 million to $3 million and purchasing stocks in companies focused on working from home.
Loeffler co-owned those stocks with her husband, who is the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. But, roughly three weeks later, she publicly showed confidence in the market.
Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga.:
The good news is, the consumer is strong, the economy is strong.
As for Burr, who is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on February 7, he co-wrote an op-ed assuring the United States was better prepared than ever before to face coronavirus.
On February 12, the U.S. stock market hit an all-time high, but coronavirus deaths in China had topped 1,000. The Centers for Disease Control warned that same day of coronavirus spreading in the U.S.
The following day, February 13, Burr's trading account sold off between $628,000 and $1.7 million in stocks. Both Burr and Loeffler have denied they made the financial moves based on nonpublic information, which would be illegal for members of Congress.
Sen. Kelly Loeffler:
It's absolutely false, and it could not be true.
Loeffler said today, a money manager does all of her trades, and she doesn't learn of them until three weeks later.
In a statement today, Burr said he — quote — "relied solely on public news reports to guide my decision regarding the sale of stocks on February 13."
Burr also asked the Senate Ethics Committee to open an investigation in the matter to provide — quote — "full transparency."
So, Lisa, you spoke today with Senator Loeffler and with Senator Burr's office.
That's right. Just a quick note here.
So, the questions that remain, though, Senator Loeffler basically saying she had nothing to do with these stock trades because it goes through a third party. But we don't know who else she may have spoken to. Did she speak to her husband, who could have spoken to their money manager? It doesn't sound like she has a blind trust, per se.
Senator Burr is saying his office says that he has been raising the alarm about pandemics for a long time, and he's had this concern for a while. The question for both of them, of course, is their public statements vs. what they were doing with their stocks.
Yes, that is a question.
And, Lisa, what did the experts tell you about whether what has happened appears to have broken a law?
Our producer Geoffrey Guray spoke with former federal prosecutors, SEC enforcement officers, congressional ethics experts.
They say, we just don't know enough yet about the timing and exactly who these senators spoke with. But two of those people said they do think there might be enough to initiate a case. Right now, Judy, this is in the hands of the Senate Ethics Committee, which is not the most transparent body on Earth.
But we obviously will pay — be paying close attention. There are other members of Congress that made stock trades, but the timing is not as suspect as it is for these two, doesn't raise as many questions.
And, Yamiche, over the White House, the president was asked about this.
That's right. The president said he would possibly be interested in seeing these senators be investigated for these stock trades, but he said these are good, honorable people, and that they have said that they have done nothing wrong.
I should say, a couple days ago, I talked to the White House economic adviser, Larry Kudlow. He said that the coronavirus might be a good buying opportunity for people, when I asked him about specifically what he would say to Americans who were scared about their 401(k)s or their retirement funds.
So there is this business message coming from the White House as well.
Yamiche Alcindor at the White House, Lisa Desjardins at the Capitol, thank you both.
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