ROBERT COSTA: A restless president and nation.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We’re going to be opening up very, very, very, very soon I hope.
MR. COSTA: President Trump at odds with his own officials.
NIAID DIRECTOR ANTHONY FAUCI: (From video.) Now is no time to back off. Now is the time to actually put your foot on the accelerator because we’re going in the right direction.
MR. COSTA: But with unemployment rising, the president feels pressure to reopen the economy. In hotspots, black Americans race alarming rates of infection.
NEW YORK GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO (D): (From video.) Why is it that the poorest people always pay the highest price?
MR. COSTA: And on Capitol Hill, a debate over funding.
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) My colleagues must not treat working Americans as political hostages.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) We need more oversight in terms of how this works and how we can make it work better.
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. The week ends with new reporting revealing a debate inside the White House that is far from settled. While the coronavirus pandemic grips the nation, there is a growing clamor inside the West Wing to reopen the American economy. For the Washington Post and others the economy is in free fall, and President Trump feels pressured to resume business activity as soon as next month, especially after the Labor Department said that 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment last week. The president spoke out Friday about his position and he we echoed by the attorney general, William Barr, earlier in the week.
REPORTER: (From video.) Your doctors who are gathered here seem to be in doubt as to whether or not the country could reopen on May the 1st. If they come to you before May the 1st and say the country is not ready or huge parts of the country are not ready to reopen on May the 1st, will you listen to them?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I listen to them about everything. I will certainly listen.
REPORTER: (From video.) Will you take that advice?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) There are two sides, remember. There is – I know – I understand the other side of the argument very well.
ATTORNEY GENERAL WILLIAM BARR: (From video.) In this period of time – at the end of April – expires, I think we have to allow people to adapt more than we have and not just tell people to go home and hide under the bed.
MR. COSTA: But the president’s own experts are more cautious and they’re unwilling to commit to any date until they see more data.
NIAID DIRECTOR ANTHONY FAUCI: (From video.) This is not the time to feel that since we have made such important advance in the sense of success of the mitigation that we need to be pulling back at all.
MR. COSTA: Four top reporters now join us to discuss these tensions and other issues: Yasmeen Abutaleb, health policy reporter for the Post; Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times; Amna Nawaz, senior national correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; and Jonathan Karl, chief White House correspondent for ABC News and author of Front Row at the Trump Show, now a New York Times bestseller. Good evening to you all.
Yasmeen, you’ve been reporting on the taskforce all week. We saw all smiles today at the White House with Dr. Fauci and President Trump, but what’s going on behind the scenes? Are they winning the argument to keep the country closed down for weeks?
YASMEEN ABUTALEB: I think we’re going to have to wait and see. You know, some sources I’ve spoken to have pointed to the fact that President Trump before was pointing to Easter as an opening date. It seemed like that was inevitable and then, you know, they managed to talk him out of that. I think the health officials do agree you do need to reopen the country at some point but you need to do it in a way that’s safe and methodical and you make sure you have all the right pieces in place. And right now, you know, the understanding is and the agreement is they certainly do not have all the pieces in place to be able to do it safely – you know, broader testing so you could make sure you don’t have new outbreaks, contact tracing, tests to figure out who has immunity to the virus, none of that stuff is in place. It’s being discussed, but it’s certainly not going to be ready by the end of the month or at the beginning of next month.
MR. COSTA: Jon, when you think about the economic taskforce the president announced today, will that be competing with the health experts about this timeline for reopening the economy?
JONATHAN KARL: I think there’s no question about it, and the president has been hearing it throughout this period, even before he made the decision to go from April 15th to April 30th. There have been two camps and the president has had advisors from the start, Robert, who have made the case that really the beginning of this was also an overreaction. That’s their view, and they believe – and this is largely on the economic team – that you’ve got to have some kind of a reopening by April 30th, and clearly that is not the direction that the medical experts are pointing to. So I think this will be a battle that will pit largely the economic team versus the health-care team, and I am not sure where the president goes on this. You know, on one hand, Robert, he sounds like he’s getting ready to call for an opening, he’s saying once again the problem can’t be worse than the cure, he is sounding like somebody who wants to do that; but at every major decision point so far he has actually listened to the health-care experts.
MR. COSTA: But on the business side, Jon, who is he listening to? Who has his ear – is it Secretary Mnuchin, is it friends on Wall Street?
MR. COSTA: Well, certainly Secretary Mnuchin’s an important part of this, but he works the phones. You know how he works. And his friends not just on Wall Street, but his friends elsewhere in the business world, he’s talking to them, he’s hearing from them, and he’s hearing a lot of – you know, a lot of arguments in favor of getting the country back to work again. And he’s also hearing warnings that doing that too soon could be counterproductive and perhaps disastrous.
MR. COSTA: But Amna, I was watching you on NewsHour yesterday; you were talking to Governor Tate Reeves of Mississippi, and as much as President Trump wants to make this decision about reopening the economy it’s governors in a lot of these states who will make the decision about their own states and when they reopen. What did he tell you and what are you learning as you report on the governors about whether they will listen to the president or not?
AMNA NAWAZ: Yeah, you’re seeing governors sort of on the frontlines of this in terms of making the decisions about how they’re going to be handling the cases, the infection rates, the testing, the procurement of all the PPE, that protective medical equipment their frontline workers need, governors are really on the front end of – tip end of the spear on all of this. Tat Reeves yesterday was telling me, look, a lot of the same arguments you’ve been hearing from the president which is that he waited three weeks before they had their very first confirmed coronavirus case before he issued a statewide shelter in place. And the reason for that was something we’ve heard from the White House, was that he said I don’t think we should be doing this for weeks and weeks on end because we’re going to have an economic disaster on the back end.
So this huge debate has emerged now, which is: Which disaster do you mitigate? Do you try to address the heath disaster, which we know is spreading around the country and really kind of stop the economy in its tracks to be able to do that first? Or do you try to kind of do both things at the same time? Do you worry about the economic fallout and not take as many aggressive steps to address the health fallout early on? Of course, the health experts will say you can’t address the economic fallout before you address the health fallout. And we don’t even have a good sense of what’s needed to address the health disaster right now. We have no idea how widespread these cases might be.
In Mississippi they’ve even said – you know, Governor Reeves told me yesterday, you know, they were late to start testing. They didn’t start until after those cases in early March. They don’t have nearly the case – the testing kits that they need to be able to figure out exactly how widespread it is. And that led to sort of a patchwork of responses across the state before the governor stepped in.
MR. COSTA: Hey, Carl, when you talk to your sources on Capitol Hill, many Republicans are telling me privately that they’re a little nervous about President Trump’s decision here, because their own electoral fates are on the line, tied in with whatever the president does. So what’s the White House hearing from top Republicans in Congress and Democrats?
CARL HULSE: I think what they’re hearing from the Republicans, and what I was hearing this week, is that they have to get these tests – the antibody test to show that people have been infected and maybe they’re safe to go back. I heard this repeatedly from Republican senators saying: This is the key. We’ve got to get that going. We need to have millions of these by Memorial Day. So that’s where they’re focused right now. I think they’d be very nervous about reopening and have this – another spike later on in the year, closer to the election. They know they’re actually in pretty big trouble on the Hill right now in terms of holding onto their majority.
You saw some rating shift on Senate races this week. The president’s trying to bolster these endangered Republicans, announcing, you know, I’m sending X number of ventilators to Colorado. I’m sending X to Arizona. But I think there’s a lot of unease. People are pulling back from the idea already that the Congress would come back April 20th. So I think they’re probably signaling to the president: Let’s slow down until we know exactly what’s going to happen, because not only is your political fortunes at stake, but ours are too.
MR. COSTA: On another front, on health care, you’re seeing a new development that’s really important this week. The reporting by The New York Times and the Post shows that the coronavirus is infecting and killing African Americans and Latinos at an alarming rate.
NIAID DIRECTOR ANTHONY FAUCI: (From video.) We have a particularly difficult problem of exacerbation of a health disparity. We’ve known literally forever that diseases like diabetes, hypertension, obesity and asthma are disproportionately afflicting the minority populations, particularly the African Americans.
MR. COSTA: Yasmeen, this was on the front page of many newspapers. It’s a development that leaders across the country are grappling with. When you look at the data and you talk to your sources, what are you learning about why this is happening?
MS. ABUTALEB: I think, you know, there is an understanding that a lot of this comes down to systematic inequities between minority communities and white communities. Part of this is that, you know, some states only recently started collecting data based on race. So much of the early response was focused on tests and getting tests to certain places. But you didn’t think about and address some of these inequities that are inherent to, you know, the U.S. health care system. And part of it is, you know, as Dr. Fauci said in that clip, that preexisting conditions like diabetes and hypertension occur in higher rates in minority communities.
And we know that the coronavirus is especially risky to people who already have underlying health conditions. So you see all of that starting to sort of take effect. This data is still not very comprehensive, so you’ve seen a lot of lawmakers calling for better data, you know, so that the administration can start to think about ways to address this.
MR. COSTA: Amna, when you listen to what Yasmeen just said, and you think about all your reporting over the years about health care access, the burdens of care, what are you seeing right now with this pandemic in communities of color?
MS. NAWAZ: I mean, Yasmeen’s absolutely right. The numbers don’t lie, and they paint a really astonishing picture, even with the patchwork of data that we have so far. And we should be clear, it’s limited, early data. We’re relying on states to offer up that information, to collect it in the first place, complete or incompletely, and then offer it up. The federal government is not collecting it right now, and they’re not releasing it in a comprehensive way. But you just take Mississippi, for example. I was talking to Governor Reeves yesterday. In Mississippi African Americans make up less than 40 percent of the state population. So far, they make up over 70 percent of all COVID-related deaths. They also make up a majority of the infection rate.
And we know this is happening across the country, in places like Michigan, and Ohio, in Virginia, and North Carolina. Some cities have started releasing that data too. Yasmeen’s absolutely right. There’s a higher chronic burden – health burden – carried by African Americans in particular. But it’s also a matter of when they are able to access care, there’s a minimizing of pain. There’s a dismissing of symptoms there. All of those things will lead, according to the experts I’ve talked to, to a profound mortality and morbidity rate among this one community. And one of the reasons it’s important to get that data across the country is so you know where to surge the resources when you do get them.
MR. COSTA: Jon, there was an exchange today between our friend Yamiche Alcindor of PBS and the surgeon general about this exact issue. When you talk to your sources at the White House are they confronting this? Are they dealing with this in the Trump administration?
MR. KARL: Well, it certainly caught their attention. But, look, these figures are a reflection of inequality in America and about the racial outlines of that inequality. And I think it’s going to be a similar situation as you look at the economic impact. We have had now some 16-plus million people file for unemployment benefits just over the past three weeks. As you know, so many Americans get their health care coverage through their employer. This is an economic crisis and a health care crisis that is – that is intertwined very closely.
MR. COSTA: That’s such an important point, because when you think about the economic crisis, these dual crises, and health care, Carl, it all ties into, including the racial disparity, with this congressional showdown over funding. In brief, here’s what we all need to know. The Trump administration wants to shore up the $2 trillion stimulus package with an additional $250 billion for small businesses. But Speaker Pelosi and Democrats want guarantees from Republicans that half of that money would go to minority-owned businesses and community banks. And they’d like to see another $250 billion for hospitals and states.
Senate Republicans and Democrats both tried to pass their versions of funding late this week. Both efforts failed. Carl, the issue about race, about who’s going to get access to capital, they persist not just in the health front, but also on the economic front. What’s next on Capitol Hill as they continue to negotiate about small business funding?
MR. HULSE: Yeah. You know, you can’t quarantine partisanship. And we saw some of that happen this week. I think – you know, one of the interesting things to me about this, Bob, is that Senator McConnell has been very successful in moving judges on a majority vote. He’s gotten very used to doing things on a majority vote. Now he’s having to face Democrats who have real leverage in this because he needs to get 60 votes for legislation. So they’re going to press their advantage. And they – you know, what happened was Senator McConnell and the White House wanted a straight-through $250 billion for small businesses. The Democrats said: Hey, wait a minute. We want to take care of some of the problems that we see there too. Got into a stalemate.
I actually do think that they are going to work this out probably by next week. Democrats are dealing with Secretary Mnuchin, who is their favorite partner. They really like dealing with him. And I think then the bigger fight coming down the road is this so-called phase four that will be a much broader thing. But Democrats, they are not going to just sit there and say: We’re going to take what the White House wants. I think one of the fascinating things about this epidemic is how it has crystalized some of these divides that we’ve had in the country. And I think Democrats see that. And going into an election, they want to make sure that they take care of their – who they see as their folks.
MR. COSTA: Yasmeen, Carl just mentioned phase four, the next round of talks. And I spoke to Speaker Pelosi this week and she says: Hospitals need billions of dollars. When you talk to your sources, based on your reporting, where are the needs, as Congress starts to look ahead to phase four in terms of health care? Where is money needed right now as the pandemic continues?
MS. ABUTALEB: Well, hospitals are seeing, you know, disproportionate numbers of ICU patients and patients who are staying in the ICU longer than usual. You know, they’ve – insurers have waived fees for testing and, you know, some insurers have waived certain money for types of coronavirus treatment. But I think the biggest thing is that hospitals are just seeing a huge surge of patients. Many of them are Medicare patients, so the payments are lower than in private insurance, and that these ICU stays are longer and the ICU is, of course, very expensive. So you know, a lot of hospitals, especially rural hospitals or hospitals in smaller communities, say they’re really bleeding money trying to respond to this crisis and don’t have enough resources. You know, a lot of people here have talked about need for supplies, protective equipment, ventilators. There are shortages of just about everything right now. And of course, they’ve got staffs that, you know, need to work overtime. For some of these tests that you’re sending out you need technicians; actually operating these tests is very expensive. So the need is sort of spread throughout, but especially for these smaller hospitals, I think, they say they’re really hurting and they’re really bleeding money as they’re trying to respond to this crisis.
MR. COSTA: Let’s finish by coming back to the president. He is at the lectern every day, casting himself as the pandemic’s patron, personalizing the government’s spread of cash and supplies. At the same time, new reporting shows him using his power to remove two inspectors general in the past week: Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general; and Glenn Fine, the chairman of the panel Congress created to oversee the administration’s handling of the $2 trillion stimulus. Jon, Mark Meadows is the new chief of staff, former North Carolina congressman. He’s now in there. He put in a new press secretary this week in Kayleigh McEnany, but he’s also been in the president’s confidence when it comes to trying to push out some of these IGs. Is this part of a purge of IGs that we’re going to continue to see?
MR. KARL: Well, I would add a third inspector general; that’s the HHS inspector general, who the president bitterly complained about this week. He hasn’t fired her yet, but he certainly bitterly complained about her and the fact that she had served in government under the previous administration. By the way, she served under Clinton, Bush, Obama, and now Trump. She’s what you’d call a career public servant. But I would expect – it’s really a continuation of a purge that’s already been underway. But when the president hears the words “inspector general” right now, what he thinks about is he thinks about the IG for the intelligence community, about Atkinson, and about the fact that Atkinson was the one that passed on the whistleblower complaint regarding the Ukraine call to Congress that set forth the series of event(s) that led to his impeachment. So he bitterly complains about this – even the notion of an inspector general, and then when he realizes and he learned that these are largely people that have done this from administration to administration – these are, again, career public servants – he sees this as an extension of what his allies call the deep state, and a particularly nefarious one, because they’re out to get him, at least in his mind. So yes, I think you’re going to see more of this.
MR. COSTA: What’s the cost for this kind of executive action, Amna? You think about Inspector General Atkinson – very protective of whistleblowers, one of the people who protected the whistleblower about the Ukrainian call between President Trump and President Zelensky. Does this mean whistleblowers may be more hesitant to come forward?
MS. NAWAZ: I don’t think there’s any doubt. We’ve heard this from early before even the impeachment trial began, that with the pressure publicly from the highest office in the land there was a chilling effect, certainly, among a lot of people who felt like they had something to share, and I heard this from people at different government agencies along the way. And so, yeah, I think there’s a real concern. There’s a real fear out there. That’s why you’ve heard from lawmakers that more needs to be done to protect potential whistleblowers out there because of the consistent language and the consistent action coming from the president on this.
MR. COSTA: Carl, will Senate Republicans do anything? And can Speaker Pelosi, with her select committee overseeing the stimulus, try to be that oversight branch even if there’s an IG problem?
MR. HULSE: Yeah, right, I mean, this was one of the big problems with the phase three, that Democrats were insisting on oversight. President Trump does not think Congress should have a role in overseeing how he operates, and this is a tremendous amount of money that’s being shelled out, to coin a phrase. And it’s not just about corruption; it’s about waste and inefficiency. You have to keep an eye on money in this amount. And I think, you know, the president will keep doing this as long as Senate Republicans kind of roll over, which they have done so far. They sent a(n) angry letter, you know, which is sort of a joke in Washington, angry letter to come. But I think if you’re – if they want to really stop the president they’re going to have to take some serious action, and I have seen no indication so far that they’re willing to do that. So this other group that Speaker Pelosi and Senator McConnell now have to come to agreement on a chairperson of that group, so I think that’s kind of an interesting negotiation that’s going on right now. But the president will fight oversight until he is stopped by his own party.
MR. COSTA: Yasmeen, when you think about the president – oh, yeah, Jon. Go ahead, Jon.
MR. KARL: You know, I mean, on that – I’m just saying that the president thinks – the president thinks that he’s the inspector general. I mean, no oversight; he’ll do the oversight. The president will oversee his own actions. I mean, he said this explicitly, and this is what he says privately as well. He doesn’t need somebody looking over; he’s going to make the right decisions, he’s going to do the – he detests the entire – the idea. These are, you know, internal watchdogs. I think two of the real dirty words that he’s – or phrases that he’s come up are “whistleblower” and “inspector general.” He does that. He will be the ethics watchdog. He doesn’t want somebody else doing this. And I think that Carl is exactly right; unless Republicans in Congress stand up and say no, there needs to be oversight by Congress and by inspectors general, this purge or this effort to stymie this will continue.
MR. COSTA: Jon, that’s a critical point because, Yasmeen, it brings up the question of hydroxychloroquine. The president is not only going to war with his own officials on the IG issue, but when it comes to the FDA – which is still taking its time with clinical trials on hydroxychloroquine, an antimalaria drug that’s being used by some doctors to treat COVID-19 – the president’s getting ahead of his own FDA. And that kind of tensions has that caused on the taskforce as they move ahead?
MS. ABUTALEB: You know, I think it actually plays into the division that we were talking about earlier between the economic taskforce, the president, the people who want to get the country open, and the medical professionals who want to do things methodically and make sure you’re doing it safely. The drug actually factors into that quite a bit, you know, because one of the arguments that medical professionals and outside experts have been making is if you’re going to safely get the country back to work and start reopening things you need a therapeutic, you need something that can treat coronavirus. So the president and some of his advisors are really leaning on hydroxychloroquine as the answer to that and as something they can point to to say it’s fine, you can take it, you can take it to prevent it. I think the president at one point said he might even take it to try to prevent coronavirus, even though there’s no evidence of that working. So I think a lot of this comes from a desire to have some magic bullet that can treat the virus, that can get the country back to work, but the reality is the data’s pretty mixed and not at all conclusive. And one thing that I’ve heard from my sources over and over is you can’t put too much pressure on a single drug because – and Dr. Fauci has said this publicly – if it doesn’t work you need to move on to the next thing.
MR. COSTA: We must leave it there. Thank you to our guests for joining us. And make sure to watch the Washington Week Extra. It airs live on our social media at 8:30 p.m. Eastern and is later posted on our website. But for now, thank you. Our audience is growing during this difficult time and we welcome those who are new to this weekly conversation, and we appreciate those who keep coming back. We will continue taking you all as close to the news as we can. I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.