ROBERT COSTA: Inside the push to reopen and the pushback.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Our team of experts now agrees that we can begin the next front in our war, which we’re calling opening up America again.
MR. COSTA: The president forges ahead on reopening the American economy, which has been ravaged by the pandemic. In many states, each day brings anxiety and rebellion.
MICHIGAN GOVERNOR GRETCHEN WHITMER (D): (From video.) A small segment of the state is protesting, and that’s their right. The sad part is, though, that the more that they’re out and about, the more likely they are to spread COVID-19.
MR. COSTA: The president’s efforts have sparked an intense debate over executive power.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) When somebody’s the president of the United States the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be.
NEW YORK GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO (D): (From video.) The federal government does not have absolute power, so it’s the exact opposite that the president said. It says that would be a king.
MR. COSTA: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. It was a critical week for the Trump presidency. At its core it was about his decision to encourage the reopening of America. He veered from claiming total authority to ultimately leaving it in the hands of states, but there’s no doubt about where he stands. Earlier Friday the president tweeted in solidarity with protesters in Minnesota, Michigan, as well as Virginia who have grown furious about stay-at-home orders. According to The Washington Post, conservative groups have organized many of these events.
And joining me tonight are four top reporters who have been covering the president all week and asking sharp questions of him and his officials: Kimberly Atkins, senior Washington correspondent for WBUR, Boston’s NPR News Station; Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Paula Reid, White House correspondent for CBS News; and Kristen Welker, White House correspondent for NBC News.
And all day Friday there have been headlines across the country about different states taking their own steps to reopen or remain closed. This week Peter Baker had an exchange with the president about these issues.
PETER BAKER: (From video.) Can you give us some – maybe the experts, Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci, give us some sense of how many yesterday? You said 29 states were in good shape. You think as many as 29 are –
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Well, yeah, Peter, I think 29 states are in that ballgame, not open – not for opening, but I think they’ll be able to open relatively soon. I think the remainder are just getting better. Look, New York/New Jersey are having very tough times, and they’ll be there. They’ll be there at some point, but they’re not going to be one of the earlier states. They’re going to be later, obviously. It’s going to be up to the governors. We’re going to work with them, we’re going to help them, but it’s going to be up to the governors. I think they’re going to – I think you’re going to see quite a few states starting to open, and I call it a beautiful puzzle.
MR. COSTA: “A beautiful puzzle.” And what a great group to have tonight. I know all of you have been working hard. Paula just stepped right over from the White House briefing room, President Trump still wrapping up his briefing tonight. But Peter, to go to your point with President Trump, what explains this transition from claiming total authority to now stepping back a little bit and saying he’s sharing responsibility with the states?
MR. BAKER: Well, sharing responsibility, I think sharing blame as well, right? If something goes wrong now he can say it wasn’t him; he provided guidance and the governors ended up making the decisions. There’s a real fear, obviously, in this White House and across the government that if there are cities and towns and states that open up too early, whatever that’s defined as being, and risk a resurgence of the disease, that of course then that will simply require everybody to go right back to where we started and shut back down again and cause a lot of – you know, a lot of unpleasant illness and probably even death if that happens. So I think the president kind of switched between Monday and Thursday under the idea that, look, if I’m going to be held responsible for everything that happens after everybody goes – reopens, maybe I ought to share that a little bit with the governors, since they’re the ones who actually had the constitutional authority to make the decision anyway.
MR. COSTA: And, Kristen, they are going their own way in many of the states. They’re not following this May 1st encouragement from President Trump. What have you learned about how states are reacting to the president?
KRISTEN WELKER: Well, really, it’s a range. You have some of the Republican-led states, Texas for example, Florida, which have really shown – Florida, to cite one, has not wanted to shut down. They were sort of late in terms of doing that. And then Texas really defiant and really signaling that they are more poised to reopen sooner than some of these other states. And so I think it really runs the gamut. But when you look at a state like New York, like New Jersey, certainly, some of the states that President Trump took aim at – Virginia, Missouri, Michigan – saying “liberate” these states, essentially siding with some of the protesters who have been out and saying that these stay-at-home orders have just been too tough. And I think Peter’s absolutely right. You see President Trump really trying to share the blame of this crisis, particularly as he enters this next phase of dealing with it.
MR. COSTA: That’s a great point, Kristen, because when we think about President Trump’s comments about “liberate,” Kim, is there any concern inside of the White House that he’s encouraging civil unrest?
KIMBERLY ATKINS: If there is, it’s not getting through to him. We know that this is a president who likes to lead by instinct, lead with his gut. And this is a president who is very attuned to what his supporters want. And he saw these protests happening, led by conservative groups, that are pushing back against these Democratic governors. And it seemed almost irresistible for him to side with them, despite the fact that some of these protests, including the ones in Michigan, featured hundreds of people actually gathering together in violation of the six-foot distancing rule that the president’s own council has been advising Americans for weeks.
We do see in Michigan, though, it’s a risky – it’s a risky proposition. If the president is thinking about his political future, Michigan is a key state in the election. It’s one that he would need to win, as he did in 2016. And Michigan is one of the places where there is a hot spot. There is a real growth in COVID-19 cases, not just in Wayne Country, where Detroit is, but in a lot of the surrounding suburbs where he got a lot of votes last time. So by pushing back against this, it could really backfire on him politically, let alone saying what it could do from a public health standpoint.
MR. COSTA: In terms of public health, what I kept hearing all week from business executives and others was: Testing matters. If the country’s going to reopen, they need to have testing in place, so they feel comfortable and they’re not going to have liability if they reopen their businesses. And President Trump was facing question after question about this kind of issue this week about testing, about his administration’s early response to the outbreak, as states continue to scramble for supplies. Here’s part of Paula’s exchange, where she was persistent, and the president defended his actions.
PAULA REID: (From video.) The argument is that you bought yourself some time and you didn’t use it to prepare hospitals, you didn’t use it to ramp up testing. Right now nearly 20 million people are unemployed. Tens of thousands of –
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) You’re so – you’re so disgraceful. It’s so disgraceful, the way you say that. January 30th –
MS. REID: (From video.) What did your administration do in February with the time that your travel ban bought you?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) A lot. A lot.
MS. REID: (From video.) What?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) And in fact, we’ll give you a list.
MR. COSTA: Paula, you’ve been persistent all week, pressing the administration for answers on testing, about how it handled February of this year. What’s the latest update from the White House, where you are right now?
MS. REID: They’re clearly on the defensive on this issue of testing. In the briefing a short time ago they spent about 90 minutes having various task force officials do presentations, PowerPoint presentations, talking about testing, defending their record on testing. And the headline from these officials is that we do have the capacity in the U.S. to do the testing they need to do to make those local officials, those business leaders, even the president’s own medical experts comfortable in reopening the economy. But let’s be clear, the issue isn’t just capacity. It’s also implementation.
And over the past several months, the administration has engaged in a pattern of overpromising and underdelivering on implementation of testing. It was six weeks ago in the Rose Garden that the administration insisted you were soon going to be able to roll up to a pharmacy or a Walmart, do drive-through testing. Right now that’s not widely available. They also promised a Google website where you’d be able to go on and find places to get tested. That has also not truly come to fruition. And the president famously promised that anyone who needed a test could get one.
And right now, it’s just not clear why they are not using the full authority of the federal government – the DPA, DOD labs, FEMA – to issue a comprehensive federal testing strategy, because we’ve seen with other countries, Germany and South Korea, one of the reasons they were more successful in containing this is because they had a central national strategy.
MR. COSTA: Kim, you want to jump in here? I saw you nodding.
MS. ATKINS: Yes, that’s exactly right. And that is what local officials, as well as public health officials, have been telling me all week. One point that was made during the briefing today is that testing is not the end-all and be-all – that’s what Dr. Fauci said – but what is is data. No community, no state, can implement a successful strategy without data to be able to know where the virus is spreading, where the incidents are coming down, the level of the number of deaths, where it might be a place where you could start to reopen without the data. And you can’t have the data without the testing. And the states on their own do not have the capacity to do that. The federal government has that.
Now, President Trump came under fire, was criticized very early on for not using the Defense Production Act, for not using other levels at his disposal to ramp up testing weeks and weeks ago. And as everyone has said correctly, he has chosen instead to deflect that blame back to the states rather than take that action. He says he’s saving it as leverage against private companies. But so far the people on the ground said the data that they need they do not have, and they do not have the means to get it.
MR. COSTA: Kristen, what about these conference calls, the councils the president’s been having all week as he’s moving toward reopening the economy? What does your reporting tell you about how that’s all gone?
MS. WELKER: Well, President Trump is really reaching out to a broad swath of people to try to get a sense of what the best way is to move forward. As Kimberly was just mapping out, there’s broad agreement that they need to have data in order to do that. Having said that, there is so much pressure on this administration to get the economy up and running, so he’s getting a lot of that from the business community, small businesses, the banks. It really runs the gamut.
There was a conversation today with Vice President Mike Pence, though, I think it’s worth noting, that got very heated, with Democratic senators saying essentially: You are not answering our questions when it comes to testing. We don’t feel as though there’s enough of a nationwide strategy here and that really needs to be in place. And, again, that is why you see the administration on the defense during this briefing that Paula was talking about. We know based on our conversations that behind the scenes there is an acknowledgement that they do have to ramp up. They’re trying to figure out how to do that.
MR. COSTA: Peter, I don’t want to move on yet before we talk about executive power. And you’ve been reporting on the presidency for years. When the president of the United States claims he has total authority, is that true?
MR. BAKER: No, it’s not true. And I think he heard that loud and clear, not just from liberals and Democrats, but from conservatives and Republicans. You heard that from Liz Cheney, the congresswoman from Wyoming. No shrinking violet, her. You heard that from constitutional experts like Jonathan Turley, who was the only law professor to appear at the impeachment hearings just last fall on Trump’s side. You heard that across the board.
And I think that that either got through to the president, or got through to his aides, anyway, because in fact the president has a lot of power, has a lot of authority, a lot of leverage if he wanted to use it. But there’s nothing in the Constitution that allows him to supersede a governor’s order to stay home, to have people stay at home. In other words, he might have the power to intervene in the case of an emergency, but to intervene saying there is no emergency is a whole new interpretation of the Constitution.
Now, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t pressure governors. He has, obviously, tools at his disposal if he wanted to. But he basically retreated on that yesterday. And he used the same language he had used on Monday, in reverse. On Monday he says, the president of the United States calls the shots. Yesterday he got on the phone with the governors and he says: You all will call the shots. And it struck me as a – you know, not only a reversal, the latest we’ve seen of many – but an effort on his part to continue to send conflicting messages so that nobody can hold him completely accountable for any particular aspect of this if things don’t go right.
MR. COSTA: Lucky me, I don’t just have four reporters here tonight, I have two lawyers – Paula and Kim. Paula, as an attorney and a reporter, what do you make of what Peter just said in your own reporting?
MS. REID: Oh, he’s absolutely right. The Constitution is crystal clear on this. The president does not have the absolute power that he claimed, and he saw that. The legal, political, and logistical clapback on that was pretty swift. You see these different groups of regional governors getting together and saying that they were going to create their own coalitions to decide on a regional basis when it was best for them to open up. You saw constitutional scholars – again, Peter mentioned Jonathan Turley – and the constitutional scholars were pretty unanimous on this, saying legally he does not have this authority and logistically – I mean, he was claiming this specifically – a total authority to turn back on state/local economies, schools. Logistically it’s just not clear how he would even do that. That became crystal clear. That’s why you saw this swift reversal and now he’s deferring to the states and local leaders, and in doing that – issuing federal guidelines but deferring to the states – he’s giving cover to those local leaders who want to get back to business while also, of course, shielding himself and the White House from any blame if there is a resurgence in coronavirus or new outbreaks.
MR. COSTA: Kim, when you look at the tension between the president and Governor Cuomo of New York, does it come down to the governor’s comments about the president not being a king to this issue of executive power?
MS. ATKINS: Yes, it goes right against, again, that instinct that he has – the president has – that he is the leader in messaging, that everything comes down to him. He doesn’t want to listen to experts. He doesn’t want to always pay attention to the Constitution, as is the case where he missed the 10th Amendment in asserting that absolute authority. He is pushing back against – he also pushes back against criticism. So all that creates sort of the perfect storm and the perfect foil in Governor Cuomo. But what I’ve heard from other governors, including Governor Baker in Massachusetts – also a Republican – is governors don’t have much of an appetite to fight with the president right now. They want to get the materials, the testing, the data, and the resources that they need in order to stop the spread of the virus, and they think that incurring the ire of the president is not always the best way to go. So it’s a delicate dance going on there.
MR. COSTA: And while all this is happening – the debate over executive power, the White House versus the states – the nation’s unemployment claims have reached 22 million. And Democrats, Republicans, and the administration, they’re continuing to negotiate tonight, this weekend, about the small-business lending program. That program, which was part of the $2 trillion congressional deal a few weeks ago, has now maxed out of its allocated $350 billion. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said this on Friday.
SENATE MINORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) We’ve had constructive talks. They’re going to continue through the weekend. And I don’t see any reason why we can’t come to an agreement soon.
MR. COSTA: But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has held firm, urging Democrats to resist expanding an agreement beyond the small-business program.
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) It’s absolutely surreal to see Democratic leaders treat support for workers and small businesses as something they need to be goaded – goaded – into supporting. This really should be above politics. Americans need Democrats to stop blocking emergency paycheck money and let this job-saving program reopen.
MR. COSTA: Kristen, we keep hearing about President Trump, his tweets, his daily briefings, but there is a whole ‘nother story on the economy and on the congressional side. It seemed Friday that the two sides are coming a little bit closer together to add some money for hospitals – maybe 75 billion (dollars), POLITICO’s reporting, on top of the 250 billion (dollars) that the Republicans want for the small-business program. Do you see the negotiations being successful this weekend?
MS. WELKER: It seems like they are making progress, based on my reporting. I’ve heard that figure as well, that $75 billion; Democrats essentially saying, look, we want money for hospitals, for state and local governments. They were stalemated, deadlocked, just a few days ago, but they have started talking again, and that’s in large part because the White House has moved forward, realizing that they need to give Democrats something in order to get this done. There’s immense pressure on everyone, both sides of the aisle, to renew this fund. But as one administration official told me, that of course there’s the most pressure on the president because he is the one who’s sort of left holding the bag if this doesn’t get resolved, and so that’s why you see the White House moving an inch towards the Democrats. Will it be a done deal? That remains to be seen. They are hopeful. They’re going to continue to talk throughout the weekend, and I’m told Tuesday is the earliest that they could actually be able to vote on this.
MR. COSTA: Holding the bag and, Paula, the president’s name’s going to be on the checks for those stimulus payments that are going out. How have Democrats felt about that move from the administration?
MS. REID: Well, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has criticized that as unnecessary delay and an act of vanity, but in terms of this phase-three stimulus, I mean, this was passed with record speed and record size. White House officials tell me, yes, there’s a lot of details we need to work out on the fly, but specifically with refunding the small business program they’re under a lot of pressure because the president is also hearing from outside conservative voices that they do not necessarily want to see a phase four. They would prefer to see the country reopened and get back to business. So if they can come to a deal on this to re-fund this specific program, that may help buy them more time before they’re really pressed on a phase four.
MR. COSTA: Peter, the reason this is all expired money is because all these businesses are applying for loans and they want to see more loans go out. What’s your read? Is it political theater? Will both sides ultimately come together like they did on phase three and that $2 trillion deal, or not?
MR. BAKER: Well, it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t eventually. Obviously, the economy is in such dire straits that both parties, of course, have great incentive to do something to keep it – you know, keep it holding up as long as possible, until these stay-at-home orders can be effectively rescinded. And I think that it’s hard to imagine that this negotiation period doesn’t eventually lead someplace constructive, but you know, we’ll see; it’s a different era. In previous eras this wouldn’t have been that hard, but this is – this is a moment of polarization. You heard the president at his briefing just now, not more than a half-hour ago or so, trashing Nancy Pelosi, saying she was on vacation, she didn’t want to come back and do her work, trying to pressure her and make her look like she is indifferent to the needs of the – of the country. A lot of Republicans went after her this week because of some pictures involving ice cream. And so they’re trying to turn the table on the Democrats, even though, of course, the incumbent party in the White House is usually the one that owns the economy one way or the other, for good or for ill. Eventually, of course, if they get a deal, this is a temporary thing that might not matter very much politically in the fall, but the economy is on such tenterhooks. Everybody is so sensitive about it – as you point out, 22 million people out of work – there’s a great, great incentive. I did the math today, Robert: 22 million workers in the last four weeks put in for unemployment; that is the equivalent of the entire workforce – every single worker, man and woman – in 23 states combined. That’s a lot of people who are facing a lot of pain right now.
MR. COSTA: Kim, to that point about pain, I mean, you see it up close in any community. Your heart goes out for people who are losing their job. And I love your reporting because you’re always keeping an eye on Boston for WBUR up there. What’s happening on the ground? We see the stock market’s pretty steady; it’s even rising off some news off development of new drugs. But for people in Boston and other cities – but in Boston in your case – what are you hearing? What are you seeing?
MS. ATKINS: Yeah, and it goes directly to these negotiations. You’re seeing the cases – the number of cases rising in the state. It is one of its own – one of the country’s hotspots. At the same time you’re also seeing things like racial disparities in how this – how this virus has manifested playing out in Boston and surrounding communities. And you see the health-care system. Boston is one of the hubs of health care in this country, and you’re seeing the very – the big impact on health-care workers as they are trying to provide aid for people. And it’s just those types of communities that the Democrats have in mind in this short-term funding negotiation. They understand and want the SBA to have these additional funds for small businesses, but they see if they don’t address – they say if they don’t address health-care workers, local officials in this bill, it’s going to be that much harder to get everything they need in the next one, and time is running out. So that is the main argument for pushing forward and requesting more than just small-business funding in this next round. A place like Boston is a perfect example of what they’re pointing to.
MR. COSTA: And Paula, so many of these drugs that people are optimistic about, they still don’t have FDA approval and some tests are still waiting on FDA approval, so so much of this is TBD when it comes not only to health but to the economy.
MS. REID: Absolutely, so many of these business leaders have said robust testing is necessary and they don’t just mean testing for COVID; they also mean antibody testing. And just moments ago Dr. Birx was explaining just really how little they understand so far about being able to test folks for whether they have been exposed, and if they’ve been exposed if they are actually immune. It seems we’re still a long way from that. There’s also questions about vaccines; we’re still a year to a year and a half out of a vaccine. And there is the question – a policy question, not just a science question – about whether that vaccine would have to be mandatory in order to be effective. The sources I’ve spoken with say based on this – the nature of this virus the president – the government would need to mandate this vaccine in order to truly make it effective, and it they don’t mandate it then this whole argument that we’ll be fine once we have a vaccine is pie in the sky.
MR. COSTA: That is all the time we have. Many thanks to our panel: Kimberly Atkins, Peter Baker, Paula Reid, and Kristen Welker, first-rate group of reporters. We thank you for your time and your reporting.
And we will keep bringing you as close to the news as we can. This conversation, it’ll continue on our Extra. You can watch that live on our website and our social channels. But for now I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.