Full Episode: The politics of the Coronavirus response

Mar. 20, 2020 AT 8:34 p.m. EDT

Americans are preparing for the economic and public health consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak. As Congress deliberates on a third aid package after passing a bill signed by President Donald Trump this week, the panelists discussed how the U.S. government is responding to the outbreak.

Get Washington Week in your inbox


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

ROBERT COSTA: A nation on the brink of an economic and health meltdown.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) It’s a medical war. We have to win this war. It’s very important.

MR. COSTA: The Trump administration under intense pressure as the coronavirus spreads.

NIAID DIRECTOR ANTHONY FAUCI, M.D.: (From video.) Is it possible that there is aerosol transmission? Yeah, it certainly is.

MR. COSTA: The president proposes a $1 trillion rescue plan as Americans brace for economic carnage. Can congressional leaders cut a deal?

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) Our bill recognizes that a big structural national crisis requires a big structural response.

SENATE MINORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) There are some people still employed, but there are many, many, many who have lost their jobs, and one check isn’t going to be enough.

MR. COSTA: And in the states, officials grapple with immense challenges.

NEW YORK GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO (D): (From video.) You can’t buy a ventilator right now – globally, you can’t buy them.

MR. COSTA: Next.

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

MR. COSTA: Good evening. The economic and health crisis that has gripped the nation and the world is now moving at warp speed on two fronts. By the closing bell on Wall Street on Friday, the markets wrapped up their worst week since the 2008 financial crisis. Meanwhile, the biggest cities and state governments are sounding the alarm for critical medical equipment that is in short supply. And governors of California, New York, Illinois, and Florida are issuing sweeping new restrictions to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The congressional response is where we begin tonight. That is where the action is in Washington, with a $1 trillion economic rescue plan under consideration.

Joining us tonight at this difficult time are four reporters who have worked hard all week at the White House and at the Capitol – and from home, like many of you. Like you, they are doing their best to keep reporting and asking the questions that must be asked of people in power: Nancy Cordes, chief congressional correspondent for CBS News, who joins us from Capitol Hill; Jake Sherman, senior writer at POLITICO and co-editor of Playbook; Eamon Javers, Washington correspondent for CNBC; and here at the table is Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour.

Nancy, we begin with you. You’re covering the Senate negotiations about this trillion-dollar package. Where do those talks stand at this hour?

NANCY CORDES: Well, we saw Leader Schumer and Leader McConnell, the Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate, a short time ago, and they said, Bob, that they are making good progress, but they don’t think that they are going to make that self-imposed deadline of working out all those details tonight. More likely this will spill over into tomorrow. That does still enable them to possibly be on track to vote on this very massive economic package on Monday. The sticking points, Schumer said, have to do with this Marshall Plan for hospitals, as Democrats call it, making sure that hospitals around the country have the protective gear they need. He said that the two sides are making great progress on that front. The other sticking point, state stabilization funds – making sure that states who essentially run out of revenue because of this crisis have a backup. And that’s a debate because some Republicans will argue they should have had a rainy-day fund, some Democrats are arguing they could never have foreseen this. So the question is, should they get more funds? How large should those packages be?

MR. COSTA: Jake, you’ve tracked Speaker Nancy Pelosi so closely. If Leader McConnell and Senator Schumer come together on an agreement in the next 24 to 48 hours, will House Democrats move to quickly pass that legislation?

JAKE SHERMAN: That’s the question of the hour, Bob. I mean, I don’t know the answer to that. Nancy Pelosi is playing it close to her vest. The question we all have to consider is, is Chuck Schumer acting as a proxy? Does he have Nancy Pelosi’s back? Is he taking her interests to the table? Now, there are some signs this evening that, yes, he is. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have spoken several times to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, himself a former Democrat who was active in Democratic fundraising circles for many years and somebody who just worked with Nancy Pelosi on a large-scale package just a couple weeks ago to help deal with the early stages of the coronavirus. But listen, the big challenge for House Democrats – and this is going to seem crazy, perhaps – but they literally cannot bring the House of Representatives back to Washington in a – in a meaningful way. Two members of the House have tested positive for the coronavirus. Another dozen or so that we know of – and we don’t know of everybody, but another dozen or so that we know of, members – have been sequestered, have quarantined themselves over concerns that they might have it. So it’s unclear mechanically how they will pass this bill. Now, they could do it by unanimous consent, but remember, this is a trillion-dollar, possibly two-, three-trillion-dollar package. But I do anticipate sometime Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday this bill will pass. I’m not sure there won’t be bumps, as you know, Bob and Nancy from covering this stuff for so long. There will be bumps on the road, but I do anticipate the incentive is there for everybody – for McConnell, Schumer, Pelosi, and Kevin McCarthy.

MR. COSTA: Jake, quickly, is there any talk of remote voting for the House of Representatives?

MR. SHERMAN: Yeah, something that Nancy Pelosi has avoided for a long time. I don’t think she could rule it out much longer. She didn’t rule it out on a phone call. Her leadership didn’t rule it out on a phone call last week. I think it’s possible, but there are a lot of perils mechanically. The technology is not there. And we just saw the Iowa Democratic Party have a tough time in its caucus with remote voting itself.

MR. COSTA: Eamon, you track the markets. You cover the White House. Speaker Pelosi has been working closely with the treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, to try to cobble together a bipartisan agreement. What would it mean for the economy if Congress can’t come together in the coming days?

EAMON JAVERS: I mean, absolute disaster, Bob. I mean, we’re already looking at an absolute economic national tragedy here, that the jobs report next time around is going to show job losses in the millions from what’s happened here with the economy over the past couple days. We are 10,000 points on the Dow below where we were at the highs, and this is just getting started. The question that I come back to is, if you look at a trillion-dollar bill, I mean, this is a $24 trillion economy. If you’re turning a number of industries down to zero in terms of revenue – I’m talking airlines, restaurants, anything that involves a large gathering of people, hotels, all of it going down to zero – you walk around towns anywhere in this country right now and you’re going to see almost zero economic activity. That is an epically bad problem for all of those industries simultaneously. We’ve never seen anything like this in economic history. A $1 trillion bill isn’t even going to come close to covering the damage economically that we’re going to see here. The question is, what happens to all of those millions of Americans who are losing their jobs right now? I don’t think Congress fully understands the scale of the economic wipeout that’s happening right now.

MR. COSTA: Meanwhile, President Trump is staying a bit away from those negotiations, as I said, allowing congressional leaders and the treasury secretary to haggle out the details, but he’s still front and center in this entire national debate. And Yamiche has been working hard from the White House, asking the president and top officials about the federal response with a focus on the lack of tests. At times the president has clashed with reporters. Here is her exchange with the president from earlier Friday.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: (From video.) When will every American who needs a test get a test? Why not have medical equipment being shipped right now to hospitals who need it to prepare?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Well, you’re hearing very positive things about testing. And just so you understand, we don’t want every American to go out and get a test.

– surprise me – which doesn’t surprise me.

MS. ALCINDOR: (From video.) There are Americans, though, who say that they have symptoms and they can’t get tested.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Yeah, well, OK.

MS. ALCINDOR: (From video.) What do you – what do you say to the Americans who are saying that they have symptoms and can’t get a test?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Yeah, I’m not – I’m not hearing it. But we don’t want everybody to go out and get a test.

MR. COSTA: Accountability journalism. What have you learned inside the White House briefing room?

MS. ALCINDOR: Well, first, the president is saying that he hasn’t heard of the issue that people who have symptoms in this country can’t get tests. That’s simply wrong. Of course, everyone in Capitol Hill, across the nation is talking about this one topic, testing. Anthony Fauci, who is the doctor who sits – who stands beside the president, who is a top health official in this administration, he said very specifically today America is failing when it comes to testing capacity. People who want a test, who need a test, who are sick can’t get them. So what you hear from the president is him saying, well, I have never heard anything about this, kind of backing away from that accountability.

The other thing that I’m learning from the president is that he stands at the podium every day and unfortunately, while he is talking about himself as a wartime president – you can tell that he’s eager to fix this issue – he’s also spreading some misinformation. Today he was talking about the fact that there was a malaria drug that has been now FDA-approved to treat coronavirus patients; again, a health official had to step in, Dr. Fauci, to say no, that’s not true, there is no FDA-approved drugs to help treat the coronavirus.

Add to that what we’ve been talking about, these negotiations on Capitol Hill, the president is pushing GOP – Republicans, senators, to say we need to get more cash to Americans. Right now the bill has one check in it for $1,200 per American, but the president wants way more checks to go out.

MR. COSTA: Yamiche, what about the Defense Production Act, which would enable the president to do many more things to help provide states with tests and other materials?

MS. ALCINDOR: So the president yesterday said that he wouldn’t invoke that act unless there was a worst-case scenario. He said I signed the act but I won’t invoke it unless things get really, really bad. Today he said, actually, I did invoke that act yesterday and that I am directing companies to start mass producing medical equipment that is badly needed because you have hospitals who say that they are in dire shortages of things like mask(s) and gowns. But in that same press conference the president then backtracked and said, well, actually, I haven’t totally pulled the trigger. So tonight we don’t actually know if the president has actually invoked that act or whether or not he’s just signed it and is still waiting to pull the trigger.

MR. COSTA: Jake, there’s been reports by the Post and others about Jared Kushner having his own group working within the administration that some bureaucrats say is a rival group to the actual taskforce. When you’re talking to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, how do they see the chain of command and any possible tensions there?

MR. SHERMAN: Well, Jared Kushner is a curious choice not only because he’s not confirmed, but he has no experience – not a day of experience – in widespread, large-scale disaster management, pandemics, global health crises. So that would like – be like putting your gardener in charge of oral surgery; it would be just a difficult thing to do. And there is a lot of respect for Anthony Fauci, Tony Fauci, who has served under six presidents. I think everyone that I’ve spoken to who’s involved in this on Capitol Hill is very comforted by him. He’s somebody who’s no-nonsense. He understands the issues at hand.

And to be honest with you, let’s give credit where it’s due. The Governors Cuomo and Gavin Newsom have been largely happy with the response from the Trump administration, or at least they’ve said that. Cuomo of New York said the other day that he’s been – everything he’s asked for he’s gotten. So I mean, that’s a positive sign.

But listen, there are tough days ahead, as Eamon said. I mean, the administration just sent up a request for $50 billion more in money for just the government itself, and there’s going to be several trillion dollars of more bills that needs to get passed here. So the president is in for a very long spring and summer. And to be honest with you, me personally in reporting on Congress, I’ve not heard of any involvement of Jared Kushner. The reporting is excellent, but I don’t think he’s taking the role on Capitol Hill that he has taken in previous – in previous debates, and I think that’s a very good thing for the process on Capitol Hill.

MR. COSTA: Eamon, Jake just talked about that this eventual package could be $1 trillion, $2 trillion potentially, even more. Is there concern inside of the Republican Party that they’re becoming a bailout party, a spending party, a party that gives direct payments to Americans, or has that all changed, that whole Tea Party movement to now?

MR. JAVERS: I think it has all changed. I mean, you are hearing some senators like Lindsey Graham express some skepticism about the idea of simply writing checks and sending them to Americans, but I hear more Republicans privately – people who would have two weeks ago been enormously skeptical of this – more of them are now saying we just have to spend whatever it takes in order to get America back on its feet.

But Bob, I want to ask the question tonight of what is the political damage from this economic carnage that we’re seeing right now? I mean, I think people need to think this through. This is much bigger than the 2008 financial crisis in terms of its scale and sharpness. The 2008 financial crisis, as you point out, it produced the Tea Party, that sort of anger on the right; it produced Occupy Wall Street, the anger on the left. We’ve got a generation of Millennials who is skeptical of the ability of the capitalist system generally to succeed. We’ve got a president of the United States who campaigned on the idea that the system is rigged against you. I think all of those things are political legacies of the economic wipeout we saw in 2008 and the perceived unfairness in the way that was handled. This one is going to be much bigger than that, and I think we need to think through – as Washington and as America, we need to think through the fairness of the solutions that are being proposed right now to make sure that those square with what most Americans think of as just and right, because if we don’t get this right the political damage for decades is going to be bigger than what we saw in 2008 and 2009, and I think that has shaped our politics in ways that a lot of people can point to.

MR. COSTA: Let’s stay with that point that Eamon just brought up for a moment, what is just and right, how the American people perceive what is happening here in Washington. Let’s go back to the Capitol. As first reported by ProPublica, Senator Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina and the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sold hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of stock in mid-February days after he wrote an op-ed suggesting that the United States was, quote, “better prepared than ever before” to confront the virus. Burr is not the only senator under scrutiny; at least three other senators reportedly sold major stockholdings around the same time: Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California; Kelly Loeffler, Republican of Georgia; and Jim Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma. On Friday, Burr asked the Senate ethics committee to review his sales.

Nancy, you’re there at the Capitol talking to Republican senators. What is the response to the new reports about Senator Burr? Is he being asked to resign, is Leader McConnell calling him out, or is it business as usual?

MS. CORDES: Well, the response out in the country was pretty ferocious, but here on Capitol Hill senators were very reluctant to touch this issue today. Most of them said they didn’t know about it or they didn’t know all the details or they didn’t want to judge what Burr and some of their colleagues had done. I think that this is a very tricky situation because, yes, Burr did sell off somewhere between $600(,000) and $1.7 million worth of stock the week before the stock market started to tank, and there was this suggestion that perhaps because he was receiving coronavirus briefings he had some kind of inside information about what was going to happen. The reality is that the reason that he was getting coronavirus briefings at that point was because the news that everybody was seeing out of Asia was so bad, so dire at that point that senators were demanding those briefings. So this wasn’t exactly a secret, and Burr himself said today that the reason he sold his stock was not because of something that he heard in a briefing but because he was watching CNBC and what was happening with the Asian markets. Nevertheless, there’s no question that the optics are terrible and that there are going to be some critics who say even if he wasn’t acting on inside information he shouldn’t have done it. So that is certainly a controversy, but I have to say that when we asked senators about it they were much more focused on getting this huge trillion-dollar package out the door than second-guessing what one of their colleagues might have done a month and a half ago.

MR. COSTA: Well, Eamon knows that we all watch CNBC and appreciate CNBC.

MR. JAVERS: That’s right. (Laughs.)

MR. COSTA: But let’s turn back to a point Jake brought up, the states, because governors out there, they’re taking dramatic action. This week California Governor Gavin Newsom announced extraordinary measures one day after he wrote a letter to the president estimating that more than half of the state – 25.5 million people – could test positive for the virus.

CALIFORNIA GOVERNOR GAVIN NEWSOM (D): (From video.) A state as large as ours, a nation-state, is many parts, but at the end of the day we’re one body.

– that we direct a statewide order for people to stay at home.

MR. COSTA: On Friday New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered all employers to keep workers at home and banned gatherings of any size.

NEW YORK GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO (D): (From video.) On the businesses, on the valve, we reduced it to 50 percent of the workforce, we then reduced it to 75 percent of the workforce must stay home, and today we’re bringing it to 100 percent of the workforce must stay home.

MR. COSTA: Yamiche, when you’re at the White House talking to your sources there, where do they see the pressure points from these governors? What do these governors need in the coming weeks to survive?

MS. ALCINDOR: Well, the president held this kind of live press conference where he was taking calls from governors all around the country this week. He talked to a governor from South Carolina, from Michigan, from Illinois, and what governors were saying in call after call is that we need information on the stimulus package, we need to know how our hospitals are going to be able to get the equipment that they need, we also might need some help from the National Guard to try to help move things around our state. So what governors are saying is that they need actual specific resources.

The other things that governors were saying today and saying this whole week was that they need guidance from the White House. So the White House put out these kind of recommended things that they wanted people to do, including don’t go in a – in a group of larger than 10 people, but you’ve seen governors take extra steps to say, you know what, we’re closing down all our bars and restaurants, this is not a recommendation. As the mayor of – as the governor of New York said today when he was talking about the idea that some people need to stay home, he said this is not a recommendation; this is a mandate, we will lawfully enforce that. That’s not what the White House is doing. They’re doing guidance, but they’re not giving mandates. And I’m told at least by some sources that’s a Republican principle in their minds. They want to make sure that they are in coordination with states, but they don’t want to be seen as the federal government directing states to do things.

MR. COSTA: Eamon, when you’re covering companies, what matters in your reporting about how they’re helping states, trying to produce new ventilators, new masks?

MR. JAVERS: You know, look, you are seeing some companies responding to this, and there are some interesting, you know, companies that are in a weird way benefiting from this. You see companies like Walmart which are out there hiring workers right now because of the enormous logistical capacity that they have, and a lot of companies are looking into this idea of can they start to produce these ventilators, which look like they’re going to be in extreme shortage as soon as next week. None of that turns on a dime and it depends on financial incentives. The president does have the Defense Production Act where he can really task companies with specific orders. We haven’t seen that happen just yet, but a lot of companies are looking into it. The problem is, you know, that this crisis is going to happen next week and companies are going to need some time to ramp all this up, Bob.

MR. COSTA: Jake, should we expect states to get financial support as part of these ongoing talks at the Capitol, or should they not expect that?

MR. SHERMAN: They should expect it at some point. States and municipalities are going to be hit hard, and the real issue right now, frankly, that they’re wrestling on is hospitals and filling the gaps at hospitals. But honestly, in the next couple months, as we just discussed before, there’s just going to be so many of these spending bills that they’re going to have to backfill some of these – some of these state, local, and municipal budgets or else they’re going to – they’re going to be in big trouble because they are – although they’re not carrying the brunt of the financial burden, they’re carrying a huge load of it, and everything from logistical issues to social services they just need – they’re going to need backup and Congress realizes that. And remember, it’s an election year, and I hate to be so crass but election years matter and people want to be in the good graces of the public during an election year.

MR. COSTA: Nancy, when you look at Governor Cuomo, he’s giving daily press briefings that are televised nationally. Are we seeing new players emerge not only in the Republican Party and on the stage with President Trump, the federal officials, but within the Democratic Party?

MS. CORDES: Absolutely, I mean, you know, the Andrew Cuomo briefings have kind of become must-see TV, very matter of fact, sometimes somewhat humorous. He doesn’t overhype the problem but he doesn’t, you know, undersell it either, and so I’ve talked to a lot of people in states far from New York City who are watching for that very reason.

Getting back to the issue that states are going to be facing here, Bob, is the fact that unemployment benefits go out from the states, out from state pockets, and we’ve seen unemployment claims rise by a thousand percent over the past week alone. So we know that that is going to be a big issue for the states, and that’s one of the things that senators are wrangling over right now is how – you know, how do you create a mechanism to get additional money to the states so that they can boost their unemployment benefits and how big should those unemployment benefits be.

MR. COSTA: Is the president, Yamiche, giving the governors leeway to decide how to use the National Guard or shelter in place orders in their state? Is he stepping back at times from having sweeping declarations?

MS. ALCINDOR: It seems that way, and it seems as though, again, the White House is falling on this idea and using this idea that Republicans in particular believe that the federal government shouldn’t be telling states what to do. That’s the – that’s what the line is when you ask White House officials about it. But when you talk to some especially Democratic local governments, they say they want more from the federal government. They say they want actual leadership. They say that there’s a leadership vacuum around President Trump, that he’s not telling them exactly what the best thing is to do, especially when it comes to bars and restaurants. The White House was kind of late on the idea of telling people what to do with bars and restaurants. We saw so many cities and states start to tell people, look, you can’t crowd in bars; if you want something, you can get it delivered or you can have takeout, but don’t stand at those bars as we saw in some spring break cities like Miami where I’m from. There were a lot of people on the beaches and crowding, and those images caused the local officials to react before the White House.

The other thing I think I should just point out is that these are the times where people, like you were saying, look for leaders that are compassionate, that break through, that make people feel as though they can be calm, that have a message for Americans that are so scared, and unfortunately we’ve seen President Trump really stumble on that – stumble on the idea of being a calmer in chief. Instead, he’s lashed out at the media. Instead, he’s said some misleading information. And then there are times where he has been very serious in his tone and where he’s said, look, this is going to get very, very bad; Americans need to be vigilant.

MR. COSTA: We must leave it there. Thank you to our guests for joining us. Jake Sherman, Yamiche Alcindor, Nancy Cordes, and Eamon Javers, your reporting in these difficult times is very much appreciated. Thanks, too, to our staff and crew at WETA right here for making this all happen tonight, and thank you for joining us.

We will continue this conversation on the Washington Week Extra, which you can find on our social media and our website. But for now, stay steady. I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.


Support our journalism

Washington Week Logo

© 1996 - 2024 WETA. All Rights Reserved.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization

Support our journalism


Contact: Kathy Connolly,

Vice President Major and Planned Giving

kconnolly@weta.org or 703-998-2064