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Why Trump declared COVID-19 a national emergency — and what he denied responsibility for

Friday was another day of mass closings and cancelations as schools, sports and travel shut down amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. President Trump also declared a national emergency to increase funding for a federal response, and he appears to have a deal with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for related legislation. Amna Nawaz reports and Lisa Desjardins and Yamiche Alcindor join Judy Woodruff.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The United States is officially under a national emergency.

    The COVID-19 pandemic has now infected some 1,700 Americans, and claimed the lives of nearly 50 people.

    Today's emergency declaration triggered a rally on Wall Street after yesterday's historic nosedive. The Dow Jones industrial average surged 1,985 points, to close above 23185. The Nasdaq soared 673, and the S&P 500 rose 230. But, overall, for the week, stocks posted their worst week since the 2008 global financial meltdown.

    Meanwhile, as outrage intensified over the lack of available testing, states took matters into their own hands to help slow the spread. Thousands of schools closed across the country. More major sporting events were postponed or canceled. And one state's presidential primary was even delayed.

    Amna Nawaz begins our coverage.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Thank you, everyone. Thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Weeks into the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S., President Trump ramps up the federal response.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I am officially declaring a national emergency. No resource will be spared, nothing whatsoever.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The move opens up to $50 billion in federal resources for state and local governments to respond, similar to action taken in the face of previous public health crises, President Bill Clinton in 2000 reacting to West Nile virus, and President Barack Obama in 2009 to contain the H1N1 flu pandemic.

    President Trump's team announced a new Web site for citizens to screen their symptoms and find a testing site, if needed. And they also announced hundreds of thousands of additional tests potentially available next week through an expedited process now under way.

    The House of Representatives has been working with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin on a sweeping aid package aimed at reducing the pandemic's economic impact.

    Today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pledged to push forward with that bill, without saying if Republicans or the White House had bought in.

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.:

    The three most important parts of this bill are testing, testing, testing. This legislation facilitates free coronavirus testing for everyone who needs a test, including the uninsured.

    We can only defeat this outbreak if we have an accurate determination of its scale and scope.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    All this as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the U.S. Known cases have now spread to at least 47 states and Washington, D.C., though testing remains limited.

    In New York, drive-through testing was rolled-out today in New Rochelle, still under strict containment after a recent outbreak. A similar curbside program in Denver, where Coloradans yesterday waited in long lines to get tested.

    And across the country, mass cancellations continued of major sport events and large gatherings, as did closures of schools and universities.

    Eric Williams is superintendent of Loudoun County Virginia schools.

  • Eric Williams:

    We have lots of two-parent working families, and many of whom don't have significant flexibility in terms of taking off in order to care for their children.

    And so this was a consideration, but, at the end of the day, we need to make our decision based on student and staff safety.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And for the first time today, a delay in the 2020 election cycle.

    Here's Louisiana's secretary of state:

  • Kyle Ardoin:

    Today, I have certified that a state of emergency exists, and requested that the governor issue an executive order postponing the elections. Safe and secure elections also mean safety to the people of Louisiana. That's why I signed the certification.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    As England announced a year-long delay in its local elections, World Health Organization officials reiterated that all of Europe remains at high risk.

  • Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus:

    Europe is now the epicenter. More cases are now being reported everyday than were reported in China at the height of its epidemic.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In Italy, another grim benchmark, as infections soared by more than 2,500 cases to more than 17,600, and virus-related deaths jumped by more than 250, now totaling more than 1,200, the biggest single-day jump since the outbreak began, leading officials in Denmark to temporarily close the country's borders.

    In Brazil, reports that the first head-of-state was infected forcefully disputed by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his son, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, in an interview with FOX News.

  • Eduardo Bolsonaro:

    Confirm the test was negative.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Concerns were raised after an aide to Bolsonaro tested positive for the virus after accompanying him to the U.S. last week and meeting with President Trump. President Trump has so far not been tested, but, today, said he likely will be.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I didn't say I wasn't going to be tested.

  • Question:

    Are you going to be?

  • President Donald Trump:

    Most likely, yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Anthony Fauci, an administration leader on coronavirus, expressed confidence that the administration's newest efforts would have an impact.

  • Anthony Fauci:

    What's going on here today is going to help it to end sooner than it would have.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Across the country, it has been another day of major closings, postponements and cancellations.

    At least 12 states announced in the past 24 hours that they are closing schools statewide, all of the latest seen here on this map. Major school districts announced their own closures, including the second largest district in the country, the Los Angeles and San Diego Unified School District. More than 21 million students nationwide will be out by next week.

    The Masters golf tournament, which is traditionally played at the start of April, was postponed, as was the Boston Marathon.

    In the world of entertainment, Disney announced that it is halting all production of live-action films, and the late-night shows on television have shut down production for the remainder of the month.

    For a closer look at today's developments and the politics of the pandemic, I'm joined now by our Lisa Desjardins and Yamiche Alcindor.

    So, Yamiche, this national emergency the president declared today, what exactly does it allow to happen now that couldn't happen before?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the president took a major step today in declaring this national emergency.

    And what it's going to do, he says, is to have the full force of the federal government focused on and targeted on a coronavirus response.

    So walking through some of the things that it's going to do, it's going to provide $42.6 billion in disaster aid. That's going to be able to go through states, through the — through FEMA, which is, of course, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It has been something that's been — that's happened when it comes to hurricanes.

    The other thing that the national emergency is going to do is food assistance, shelter and medical responses. That's basic needs that Americans might need.

    And the other thing it's going to do is unemployment and insurance and overtime payment, and that's going to be focused on workers who are impacted by the coronavirus.

    So, what we're seeing here is the president really trying to say, we are stepping up efforts. And, of course, this is all happening as the president himself says he will likely be tested for coronavirus. We now know that there are two people at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida that have tested positive for the virus.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two people now.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Two people now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, separately, Lisa, the president and the Congress have been trying to work out a deal to help people who are either out of work or too sick to go to work.

  • Lisa Desjardins:


  • Judy Woodruff:

    And there's some news just in the last few minutes.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In the space of time that it took Amna Nawaz's package to play just now, we have learned that there is a deal between Speaker Pelosi, the House Democrats, and the White House.

    House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent out a letter to her Democrats saying they have reached an agreement. I am reading through it right at this moment. They said they have secured some emergency leave, two weeks of sick leave for workers, and up to three weeks of paid family and medical leave.

    There is, I'd suspect, about a billion dollars for food security. That would include seniors who are homebound, as well as children whose schools closed, and they rely on free and reduced lunch.

    There are a lot of questions about this. But today was a very difficult day, because everyone knows the importance of dealing with these very first vulnerable populations. And yet the White House and House Democrats could not reach a deal. It looks like, at this minute, they finally have, after 24 very tough hours of negotiations.

    House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin on the phone a dozen times today trying to get this done.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it sounds like a number of false starts, where it looked like they were close, but they just weren't there until literally right now.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The devil's in the details. And they say they have those details worked out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, it's early to be asking you this, Yamiche, but what is the White House saying?

    If they have come together, that means the White — they have agreed?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, I can tell you, I was just rushing over from the White House. And the president was questioned about this during his press conference.

    And he said there were a number of problems and he wasn't fully on board. And as we have now learned, through Lisa's great reporting, that there has been a deal reached and that the White House is, it seems, on board with this. That means that the president is going to be likely signing this sometime in the next few weeks, maybe even in the next week.

    I have been talking to White House sources who say the president was desperate to have something to show the American people that they were stepping up efforts, and the federal government was there to help people in this critical time, as people are scared and panicked.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We know, in advance, there had been some reporting on resistance to permanent sick leave being a part of this. We will find out more as time…

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I believe this is temporary…

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Lisa Desjardins:

    … related only to the coronavirus. And that is something Democrats conceded.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Yamiche, at this news conference today, you asked the president a question about the office at — the National Security Council office that dealt with pandemic and why that office was done away with.

    Tell us about that exchange.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, what happened was that the White House used to have this office that dealt specifically with pandemics.

    And in 2018, President Trump disbanded that. And there were people that were heading up that office that left the administration very abruptly.

    So here's that exchange between me and the president.

    And the officials that worked in that office said that you — that the White House lost valuable time because that office wasn't — disbanded. What do you make of that?

  • President Donald Trump:

    Well, I just think it's a nasty question, because what we have done is — and Tony has said numerous times that we have saved thousands of lives because of the quick closing.

    And when you say me, I didn't do it. We have a group of people. I could…

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    It's your administration.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I could ask, perhaps — my administration, but I could perhaps ask Tony about that, because I don't know anything about it.

    I mean, you say — you say we did that. I don't know anything about it.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    So, the president is saying that he didn't know anything about this, but this was a National Security Council office.

    It was his administration that did it. It was under National Security Adviser John Bolton, who is not — who is no longer in the administration, but the president saying he has the responsibility for this, which is, of course, pretty incredible.

    Now, this office, Democrats say and the Obama administration say, they set this up after Ebola crisis, and they felt like this would be something that the administration could use, the Trump administration, if there was another pandemic.

    Now, of course, there is another pandemic, and that office is no longer there. So, the White House, officials say, lost critical time that they could have been using to respond to the coronavirus.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, again, the president today saying it wasn't his decision, he didn't know very much about it?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    That's right.

    But, of course, it was his administration, it was his national security adviser. It's — the buck, people would say, stops with the president on this, but the president saying, well, it wasn't me, it was people in my administration.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very, very interesting.

    Yamiche Alcindor, thank you. Lisa Desjardins, we thank you.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You're welcome.

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