Full Episode: The Coronavirus Crisis

Mar. 13, 2020 AT 9:09 p.m. EDT

President Trump is under pressure to respond to COVID-19 and Congress took a step towards passing an emergency bill.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: A crisis of confidence shakes the nation.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) To unleash the full power of the federal government in this effort today, I am officially declaring a national emergency – two very big words.

MR. COSTA: President Trump is tested like never before. A divided Congress takes a first step.

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) Testing, testing, testing. We can only defeat this outbreak if we have an accurate determination of its scale and scope.

MR. COSTA: Next.

ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.

MR. COSTA: Good evening. We begin tonight with the rapidly unfolding story here in Washington. Leaders at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are now confronting a test to the American system. Uncertainly has gripped institutions and sectors – health care, the economy, national security, and politics. President Trump declared a national emergency on Friday, two days after addressing the nation about the novel coronavirus.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) The action I am taking will open up access to up to $50 billion for states and territories and localities in our shared fight against this disease. We are announcing a new partnership with private sector to vastly increase and accelerate our capacity to test for the coronavirus. We want to make sure that those who need a test can get a test very safely, quickly, and conveniently.

MR. COSTA: And on Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had worked all week on a sweeping aid package with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) To put families first, our legislation secures paid leave with two weeks of paid sick leave and family and medical leave for those affected by the virus. And for those who lose their jobs, we are strengthening unemployment insurance, a critical step to protect workers’ economic security.

MR. COSTA: Then earlier Friday evening the speaker announced that she has, quote, “reached an agreement” with the administration to resolve outstanding challenges.

Joining me tonight to open their notebooks are four reporters who have deep sourcing and insights into the Washington dynamics of this global pandemic: Kimberly Atkins, senior Washington news correspondent for WBUR, Boston’s NPR News Station; Toluse Olorunnipa, White House reporter for The Washington Post; Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today; and Heidi Przybyla, correspondent for NBC News.

Susan, we begin with you, writing a biography on Speaker Pelosi. She is at the center of the action as we come to this table tonight. It is unclear whether President Trump at this moment – 8 p.m. on Friday night, Eastern time – will actually sign on to her agreement that she announced. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was on Fox Business a few minutes ago saying there is an agreement. What can you tell us about where this is all heading over the weekend?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, Nancy Pelosi did reach an agreement, but it was with the treasury secretary, not with the president. And I think the negotiations we see going on now are between Mnuchin and his boss, Donald Trump. It’s really extraordinary that we find a situation where it’s not clear to us if the treasury secretary can confidently speak for the president, and House Republicans are holding off on endorsing this deal until they hear from Trump. Nancy Pelosi has suggested she might bring this up for a vote anyway tonight, even if Republicans don’t sign on. She could probably get it through the House, but without Trump’s support probably can’t get it through the Senate and certainly couldn’t get the president to sign it.

MR. COSTA: Why are House Republicans, Toluse, waiting for President Trump?

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Because they are completely tied to him ever since the 2018 midterms in which so many of the moderate Republicans lost their seats. The remnants of the Republican Party is – has become the Trump party. They have realized that if they’re going to keep their seats, if they’re going to be able to have any future in the party, they have to be completely tied to President Trump and really wait for his call in terms of what exactly they’re going to do. Whether or not they can support this is going to be based on whether or not the president tweets something saying I support this bill. So far there’s a lot in this bill that Democrats like – paid family leave, sick leave, support for the uninsured. There’s not a lot of what President Trump wanted when it comes to things like trying to get a payroll tax cut or other tax cuts for businesses or industries that he thinks are impacted by this pandemic. So right now President Trump is sort of waiting to see whether or not he will support this, and until he says so these House Republicans are not going to move.

HEIDI PRZYBYLA: The troubling part is that he’s known what they’re negotiating – the broad outlines, the broad contours of it – and he’s also known that the reason why the markets were soothed today was on the expectation that there would be such a deal. And what the specific outlines of that were were known to all of us. So if the president at this hour is not supportive of this deal, what more is it going to take? Because Pelosi did compromise, as well, on a number of elements in here like the payroll tax cut – or like the payroll tax cut, which the president wanted actually, but also the – they were going to use tax credits, I believe, instead of direct assistance, so she’s compromised her part. And if we get to Monday and the Senate comes back, which Mitch McConnell has made clear they’re coming back – they’re not going to take the recess – and the president hasn’t signed on to this, get ready for another wild ride.

MR. COSTA: And we’re looking at, Kim, a Washington that is divided along Pennsylvania Avenue – Speaker Pelosi pursuing her agreement with the treasury secretary, President Trump at the same time declaring a national emergency. Is it – what do you make of the standoff as a reporter?

KIMBERLY ATKINS: Well, Donald Trump – the president wants to seem that he is in control of this, that he’s always been in control of this, and blaming everyone else for everything that goes wrong. So in that sense, he doesn’t want Nancy Pelosi to be the face of what is moving forward. Now, you’re saying that Washington is divided right now. One thing that coronavirus has done on the Hill is unite lawmakers. Lawmakers were looking to get some sort of relief and get some sort of relief quickly. Lawmakers were unified in their condemnation of administrators – people in the administration who went before Congress this week to explain how we got to this point on coronavirus. It angered people on both sides of the aisle. The division is between the Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue. And you have Donald Trump, who has been angry throughout the week about how things have gone, who has, like I said, sought to divert attention to other places, and now he’s trying to control it. To allow Nancy Pelosi politically to take the narrative and to take that victory lap is probably very difficult for him.

MS. PAGE: You know, it’s hard to reach a deal when the president and the speaker of the House are not speaking, and they haven’t been speaking since impeachment, for which Donald Trump is bitter and blames Nancy Pelosi for handling. But you know, there’s a – there’s a – there’s an – something like this had happened before, which is during 2008 – you know, the big financial meltdown – Speaker Pelosi was in office and George W. Bush was in the White House; they had not spoken for months because of their – her opposition to the Iraq War. But when the economy melted down, he did talk to her. They did do negotiations that got a crucial bailout bill through, and I see echoes of that in this debate today.

MR. COSTA: That’s such an important point because you think about this moment, how do we give it context? And that 2008 example is a key one. But inside the White House, do they see this as a moment where it requires bipartisanship, and perhaps on the payroll tax cut and other issues the White House may have to give?

MR. OLORUNNIPA: Well, in 2008, with the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, he wasn’t running for reelection. President Trump is running for reelection, and that has made so much of a difference in terms of how this White House is responding. They’re looking at this through a political lens. They’re looking at the stock market. The president is looking for ways to sort of boost his position before the election. Even the payroll tax cut that he’s talking about, he wants it to last through the election so that Americans aren’t hurt economically as they go to the polls to decide whether to give him another four years in office. So that’s a major difference in the way President Trump’s White House is dealing with this and one of the reasons why it’s been difficult to get Republicans and Democrats on the same page.

MS. PRZYBYLA: Moving these things quickly, though, is there’s no parallel to this in terms of the importance of getting this done quickly because this deal is not even done, and we’re talking about having to potentially do a third round now of economic stimulus, possibly helping specific industries. And the whole point here is to soothe a very panicked nation, and in doing that, you want to try and do it quickly to show that at least Washington is all on the same page in getting America what it needs – the things that have been happening in other countries where we know that, you know, that these things have worked in terms of getting people to stay home when they are sick.

The one thing that makes us really unique from Europe is the fact that we don’t have paid sick leave. And so getting that message out to people that we understand the historic, you know, calamity that this could cause, and getting everybody on the same page, you know, I just don’t see how this isn’t going to work against him if they don’t get this done this weekend.

MR. COSTA: And your point about a third round of deals and negotiations, it’s very possible. When I was on Capitol Hill this week, everyone was talking about they already had the 8 billion (dollar) deal. They’re doing this deal now. But if the economy continues to move to full stop, you could see bailouts of industries being discussed – a whole array of major measures from the Federal Reserve to Congress to deal with this crisis.

MS. PAGE: Yeah, if we’re heading into a recession – and there are a lot of signs that we are – it could be a deep recession, it could be a serious recession. It could strike every corner of this nation because of the nature of this pandemic that we’re facing. And at that point you will need Congress and the White House to be doing some things to juice the economy because, for one thing, the Federal Reserve has done a lot of what it has to do – it has exhausted a lot of the remedies they would have for helping an economy that has fallen into a recession.

MR. COSTA: Let’s step back, though, and discuss the president because, I mean, on today’s news he addressed the nation on March 11, and as Toluse co-wrote this week at the Post, he has increasingly turned inward. He has imposed travel restrictions on one-fourth of the world’s population while criticizing other nations’ response efforts; refused to meet with the House speaker; attacked his hand-picked Federal Reserve chairman; and defied the warnings of his own public health experts. Trump’s approach reflects his us-against-them mindset, tendency to assign blame, and his combative view of geopolitics.

Kim, when you look at the president’s news conference today and his address to the nation earlier this week, you see him at one moment surrounded by corporate leaders, trying to show calm and steadiness, then he is also lashing out at reporters and critics. Where is he at this moment?

MS. ATKINS: It’s hard to tell from one moment to the next. We also saw him this week call for unity and to put partisanship aside, and he immediately went to his Twitter account and started attacking Democrats and blaming the entire thing on the Obama administration.

You talked about that 8.3 (billion dollar) stimulus that started – the relief package, emergency package. Donald Trump said he wanted 2.5 billion (dollars), and it was Nancy Pelosi that sort of – in Congress that said, no, no, you need more; we’re just going to give that to you.

And so all the while we have seen the president not only be all over the place but his instinct was to try to downplay it because he saw it as a political threat – to say that people would get better, to say – even today he’s saying we have everything under control. We have this website that people can go to and find out where they can get tested. The website isn’t even done yet.

So it’s his instinct to try to downplay things and talk himself out of things. He is learning that coronavirus is the one thing that he cannot talk himself out of.

MR. COSTA: That speech he gave – helped on – helped by Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller, based on your reporting and others.

MR. OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, the speech was a disaster in the end because we saw what happened in the markets the next day. We saw the White House and the administration having to clean up a lot of the president’s mistakes. The president’s travel ban on Europe was panned by public experts, and even the way he delivered it was not in line with what the actual policy was.

So I think what you saw today was the president trying to sort of have a do-over; trying to have another chance to talk to the markets, talk to the public and say that he is in control. Because usually behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office in a primetime address, you normally expect the president to show that they have control over a crisis, and that’s not what we saw with President Trump’s sort of fumbled statement on Wednesday.

MR. COSTA: And was part of the strategy to get CEOs to stand behind him and offer a few words?

MR. OLORUNNIPA: Yes, we’ve seen that throughout the Trump presidency, and he’s always sort of caught on that. He likes having powerful people around him to praise what he’s done. He tried to get them all up to the podium to talk about how great of a response he has provided, and I think that’s – trying to get that co-signed from CEOs and powerful people is a key part of his presidency.

MR. COSTA: And there’s going to have to be a lot of accountability down the road about whether those centers are set up in parking lots, whether the corporations are following through, as Kim said, on the website. And amid all this, you see this political warrior in President Trump. He is fighting battle after battle, grievance after grievance, and on Friday, he had this exchange with our PBS colleague, Yamiche Alcindor.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: (From video.) You said that you don’t take responsibility, but you did disband the White House pandemic office.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I just think it’s a nasty question, and when you say me, I didn’t do it.

MR. COSTA: What did that –

MS. PRZYBYLA: Anthony Fauci is on the record saying, hey, yeah, it would have really been helpful had we had this office. And to Kimberly’s point, the one thing that Trump has been consistent about is misrepresenting the gravity of this threat. I went back actually in my reporting this week and looked at the evolution of his statements. On the same day in South Korea, we had our first diagnosis here, so you – actually, it’s a perfect parallel. What we did differently was that we had a president who was completely downplaying the risk whereas the South Koreans were mobilizing.

Now it’s true – Fauci says we have a very different system here; we’re dependent on hugging the private sector whereas the government there was able to marshal all of its resources. But to come out and tell the American people that we are doing great things and we’re really ahead of the curve is just factually false.

MR. COSTA: All right, let’s stick with that point. When you are talking to your top sources in both parties, do they have confidence in the institutions, in the government – in the coming two weeks while everyone works from home and schools are closed – to come through?

MS. PAGE: No. I think there is a lot of uncertainty, and I think that’s one reason the markets are going crazy, and it’s one reason there is so much attention on what the president is doing – the president – you know, the most powerful official in our nation.

This is an existential threat for President Trump in a way impeachment was not. Impeachment, 37 days ago; it seems like a lifetime ago. But the challenge that he faces in handling the coronavirus is one that could determine – it has already changed the political landscape for 2020. It could determine his legacy of his first term and whether he has a second term.

MR. COSTA: Have you ever seen anything like this kind of test during your years of coverage of the presidency?

MS. PAGE: Yes, I think 9/11 was that kind of test. I think the 2008 financial meltdown was a really serious test of our system. So I don’t think this is unprecedented, but it is a really serious challenge for the president.

MS. ATKINS: But it is – you talk about that lack of certainty. It’s not just within – it’s within the administration itself. I’m hearing people in agencies in the administration, including the Department of Labor, who don’t know what their own sick leave policy is and whether they can work from home.

It’s people on the front lines. Health-care providers are trying to comply with the directions that they are being given, and they can’t because they don’t have the resources. State officials are begging the federal government – open up the reserves so that we can get protective equipment for our health-care providers; give us some more direction. And it’s not coming or it’s coming way too slow.

And at this rate, we don’t know – and of course, most of all is the testing. There is a lack of access to testing. As of this morning there were about 200 tests that had been taken – had taken place in the state of Massachusetts; over a hundred positive, which means that’s over 50 percent of those that are tested, and they said they would have a capability of 5,000 tests. There are seven million people in Massachusetts. It will be impossible to know just how this – just how far this virus has spread without the data.

MS. PRZYBYLA: The Ohio director of health said that she thought there could be up to a hundred thousand people in her state alone who have contracted it already. The House and Senate in-house doctor said, at the end of this, all told, we could have millions and millions of people who contract this virus; that what we are doing now is just mitigation; that what we’re trying to do is – I’m sure you’ve seen this “flatten the curve” phrase – that what we’re simply trying to do is prevent a spike in the number of cases and to keep it consistent so that we’re able to treat people in the hospitals.

But the president did not speak to some of the most important concerns Americans have today which is timing. When are those tests going to be online? I know for a fact people are going to the hospital – hospital ER rooms – and not able to get tests, even when they are showing symptoms today.

Secondly, the equipment – he said they were going to be sending – buying up new equipment and ventilators. Is it going to be enough? Because Fauci ominously was quiet about whether we’re on the same track for Italy right now, and Italy is a horrible disaster. We have fewer hospital beds per capita than the Italians do.

So these are the things, looking forward – you know, just saying don’t worry, America; it’s going away, which he said on Wednesday, and standing up there and trying to reassure people that we’ve closed the borders and that is going to be the solution is not going to work when they see their neighbors and their friends getting sick, if that’s where we’re headed.

MR. COSTA: What’s going on inside the White House as they hear these concerns from citizens, they hear reports in the press?

MR. OLORUNNIPA: Well, the same level of chaos that we’ve seen in this White House for the last three years is persisting even in the middle of this crisis.

MR. COSTA: Is that because there’s a new chief of staff? What explains that?

MR. OLORUNNIPA: Well, that’s the tone that the president has set. You’ve seen high turnover. You’ve seen a lot of infighting. You’ve seen the president put people against one another. He’s hired people who are ideologically very different from one another, who have seen that they benefit from being able to sort of fight it out in front of the president and prove their loyalty to him. So now we’re seeing that same dynamic play out at a time of a global pandemic, people trying to appease the president and not necessarily focusing on the public health focus that they should be focusing on, and it’s very clear that that same level of chaos is ill-suited to this global pandemic. And President Trump’s sort of play-it-by-ear, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach does not work well within a political crisis that stems from a global pandemic, and the – as Kimberly said, the president’s ability to sort of just talk this down and talk this away is not something that he can do at this – at this point of this crisis.

MR. COSTA: And Susan, you’re talking to Americans. USA Today has conducted a poll about the economic concerns that are out there. And beyond what Toluse was talking about – presidential leadership, a test of the White House and Congress – you’re seeing fear in this country about the economy.

MS. PAGE: Yes. In fact, when we did this poll this week about how Americans’ lives have been affected by the – by the coronavirus, people expressed more concern about the economic and financial effect than they did about the health effect. And you know, that goes to why this matters so much to President Trump. How many voters have you talked to who said, you know, I don’t really like President Trump’s tweets, but I like what I see happening in my 401(k)? And when they look at their 401(k) this week, it may not look quite as bright as it did before. That’s a big part of what Americans are concerned about. I do think the concerns about the health issues are about to go up as people start to see the effect in their community.

MS. PRZYBYLA: And is this package going to work if people are walking around who are asymptomatic and spreading the disease and if we’re only talking about a two-week leave package when half of America doesn’t have more than $400 in savings? Are they really going to say, oh, I’ll take one of those sick days now even though I’m not 100 percent sure if I’m sick? So we’ll see if this – it has to be prescriptive. It has to get at the underlying problem, which is getting people to stay home instead of treating the symptoms after the fact –

MR. COSTA: And it’s – again, we end where we begin, with Speaker Pelosi driving it along with President Trump. Leader McConnell really waiting on the side as those two leaders cobble together their own position.

MS. ATKINS: And we’ve seen him do that a number of times before when it comes to that, and he too is waiting – to Toluse’s point – to hear from the president and make sure that he is lockstep onboard before he backs this. So I think keeping the Senate in session, not letting them go to recess, is a signal that there is an urgency here, that they do need to move quickly, but at the end of the day the buck stops at Pennsylvania Avenue and it will have to be the president to back it before Republicans will fall in line.

MR. OLORUNNIPA: You know, the president said Pelosi and he would eventually talk, and they haven’t talked yet.

MR. COSTA: We’re going to have to leave it there. Thank you to our guests for joining us and offering your time and insights on this Friday night, and thank you for joining us. We will continue this conversation on our Washington Week Extra with a focus on the 2020 presidential race. It airs live on our social media and is later posted on our website.

I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.


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