Full Episode: President Trump confronts the political fallout of COVID-19

Apr. 03, 2020 AT 8:33 p.m. EDT

A record 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment this week, bringing an to end to a decade of job creation. This comes as state and federal authorities prepare for new hotspots in the widening outbreak. The panel discussed how Washington is responding to this pandemic and its financial fallout.

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

ROBERT COSTA: The pandemic tests the nation’s resolve.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) This is not the flu. It’s vicious.

MR. COSTA: The president confronts the gravity of the pandemic.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We’re talking about deaths. Even at the low end you see 100(,000) and 120,000 and 200,000 people.

MR. COSTA: But as the death toll and unemployment claims rise, governors in both parties worry about supplies.

MONTANA GOVERNOR STEVE BULLOCK (D): (From video.) But I’m not going to believe that we’ll have those masks until I see them actually delivered off a truck.

MR. COSTA: And health systems on the brink of collapse.

GEORGIA GOVERNOR BRIAN KEMP (R): (From video.) We are taking action to protect our hospitals and prepare for the patient surge that we know is coming.

MR. COSTA: In Washington, talks on another round of stimulus are stalled as the speaker and majority leader clash, next.

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

MR. COSTA: Good evening. We begin with the latest on the painful economic shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic, with many Americans struggling to pay rent, buy food, and cover their health-care costs. This week the Department of Labor’s weekly jobless claims jumped to 6.6 million, a staggering number, with losses in nearly every corner of the economy. And earlier Friday the department reported a loss of more than 700,000 jobs in March. This all comes as state and federal authorities prepare for new hotspots and warn that difficult times are ahead.

President Trump continues to face fierce criticism from Democrats and some Republicans for his handling of the outbreak. He has defended himself at every turn and expressed optimism.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) This is going to be a rough two-week period. As a nation we face a difficult few weeks as we approach that really important day when we’re going to see things get better all of a sudden, and it’s going to be like a burst of light.

MR. COSTA: Joining me tonight, Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; and Jerry Seib, executive Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal.

Peter, we’ll begin with you. What do these economic numbers signal about the economy?

PETER BAKER: Well, look, this is about as bad a number as anybody could have hoped for at this point: 11.7 million Americans at this point are seeking or on unemployment. That is about 50 percent higher than the peak of the 2008 financial crisis. It just – and this is really the beginning. We’re not even anywhere near the peak that people expect. So many businesses are shutting doors, so many people are out of work that we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg. And this, you know, suggests, basically, this is not going to be a short-term thing. The president would like it to be. The president would like to think that come the summer or fall, whenever things can begin to open up again, things will just simply snap back into place. Maybe they will, but that’s not the way the professional economists are looking at it. The CBO this week – the Congressional Budget Office – projected that unemployment will reach 10 percent and then stay as high as 9 percent through 2021, which is of course after the presidential election that matters, of course, so much to President Trump.

MR. COSTA: Yamiche, what does this all mean for low-income Americans? Are they getting the money they need as soon as they can?

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Well, what we know is that low-income communities, experts say, are more susceptible in some cases to the virus because they don’t have the same protections. They are people who are living in close quarters, oftentimes. They’re also people who sometimes don’t have access to the best health care, so even if they get the virus it’s also a matter of can they actually go to the hospitals and the doctors to get treated and get tested. So what we understand is that there’s a real worry there among people who work with that – with those populations of whether or not they’re going to be protected from the virus. Then you add to that the fact that Democrats say that they are – these are people that rely on a lot of federal programs that right now haven’t been bulked up in the face of the pandemic. For example, one example would be food stamps. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democrats pushed hard to try to get an increase in the number of – or the amount of food stamps people have and get – and get people more help, and she said that Republicans pushed back on that. So there’s also this question of whether or not low-income communities are getting the resources that they need to be able to stay at home, to be able to feed and house themselves.

MR. COSTA: Jerry, The Wall Street Journal had interesting reporting today, revealing reporting about the new small-business loan program, $350 billion in scope. It’s struggling to get off the ground on Friday. Why is that, and what have you learned?

GERALD SEIB: Well, you know, the good news is there were probably about 10,000 loans made today, $3 billion plus. The problem is that’s a drop in the bucket. And what our reporters found when they went out today was that a lot of the big banks – most of the big banks weren’t ready this morning to start making loans because there was a delay in the paperwork coming from the Small Business Administration in Washington, and some of those banks were only giving loans to existing customers not to people who were walking in through the door. And this is all a problem because – and by the way, we have an interesting example in a report of a guy – a small-business owner in Los Angeles who moved from bank to bank to bank. He visited four banks today. Two of them said, you know, we don’t know anything about this program, one of them said we don’t do Small Business Administration loans, and one was shut because of the virus. So this is a slow start. Why does that matter? Well, it matters because it’s just one day, but speed is absolutely of the essence here – that this money needs to get out the door quickly to get to small businesses before they shut down entirely, while they’re still alive, and while they can still keep people on the payroll. You know, this is inevitable in government programs to some extent, but this is a really important one.

MR. COSTA: Peter, what is the debate inside the West Wing about when the economy should reopen?

MR. BAKER: Well, that’s a great question, and in fact that’s one of the things that you take away from that briefing this week with those, you know, hellacious death projections that were presented – 100,000 to 240,000 if, in fact, everybody does what they’re supposed to do; we know they’re not. So you know, as long as that curve is going up, the economy has to be, you know, basically shuttered according to the experts. Now, the more you can flatten that curve the better it is for the health institutions, better it is for the hospitals to be ready and handle the influx they’re about to have, but it also could mean that it keeps the economy closed for a little longer. That’s the real problem, right, is that the thing that actually might be good might also be bad at the same time. Here in Washington, D.C., the mayor, for instance, just projected today that the peak might not be until the end of June. That’s still, of course, three months away. The idea that we’re going to stay indoors and keep businesses closed for three months, it goes even beyond the capacity of this $2 trillion bill to keep the economy afloat. So it’s a real conundrum. Within the White House you hear, obviously, the public-health experts emphasizing the need for these social restrictions. You heard Deborah Birx yesterday at the White House briefing in effect, you know, diverging from the president on that. And then you hear the economic advisors saying, look, you’ve got to be very wary of all these millions of people who are out of work, all these, you know, tens of thousands of businesses that are at stake here. And these conflicting and yet both very compelling interests are at the heart of this debate.

MR. COSTA: As Americans everywhere struggle, the spotlight turns to Congress. Here is what Speaker Nancy Pelosi told CNBC earlier Friday.

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) We’ve had three bills that have been bipartisan. I think right now we need a fourth bipartisan bill, and I think the bill could be very much like the bill we just passed. I’m very much in favor of doing some of the things that we need to do to meet the needs – clean water, more broadband, and the rest of that, that may have to be for a bill beyond this.

MR. COSTA: In recent days the speaker had talked up infrastructure, as did President Trump, but that may now be delayed at this point as Senate Republicans swat away the idea. In fact, in an interview earlier this week Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told me it would, quote, “take a lot of convincing” for him to pursue infrastructure at this time. Yamiche, when you talk to your sources at the White House and on Capitol Hill about this, quote, “phase four debate,” the fourth round of negotiations, what are you hearing? Is this going to be bipartisan and focused on health care or not?

MS. ALCINDOR: What I’m hearing from White House sources and from Capitol Hill sources is that they both are really interested in doing an infrastructure bill. Now, Nancy Pelosi this week was talking about doing an infrastructure bill focused on broadband internet because so many people are needing the internet as a lifeline to go to work, to speak to loved ones. She also was talking about clean water systems, because of course so many people are washing their hands and there are so many communities in this county that still, in some cases, don’t have running water or don’t have access to clean water. President Trump was talking about an infrastructure bill.

And he was talking about roads and bridges, but it sounded like there might really be some overlap there, and that there might be finally this point where an infrastructure bill could materialize. Of course, this is something that we’ve been hearing about ever since President Trump took office. There were times where was talking about the infrastructure week in the middle of all sorts of scandals that he was weathering. But then Senator McConnell poured cold water on that in that interview that you just referenced with you. He basically said, it sounded like, that he was not as interested in doing that. So it’s really an interesting thing to hear whether or not it might be House Democrats and the White House that start working together.

Of course, as we know, President Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi still are not speaking to each other. So it’s hard to understand whether or not those two portions of the government would work together. But we did get phase three without them speaking together so it could be that White House officials, legislative officials, work with Nancy Pelosi to get a bill done.

MR. COSTA: Jerry, you’ve written a lot about this possible next stimulus package this week. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, has announced an oversight committee to look at phase three. What does your reporting tell you about where this is all going to go, beyond the political firefight that Yamiche just referenced?

MR. SEIB: Well, you know, I interviewed Speaker Pelosi earlier in the week. And she was, in fact, talking about a big phase four bill, and seeing that she wanted to take the lead on this one, and Mitch McConnell had the lead on the last one. She did want to include infrastructure. And President Trump, as she well knew, is interested in that topic as well. And so we were talking then about the possibility of a very big economic stimulus bill including a lot of infrastructure, including fixes to hospitals, and roads, and lots of other things. And then, as you suggested, it switched a little bit when Speaker (sic; Leader) McConnell spoke up against that idea. I think we now may be looking at two more bills, one to plug some of the holes in the health care system and the medical supplies that already have been found since the last one was passed, and then maybe a follow-on one later in the year to do infrastructure.

I think it’s important to keep in mind, Bob, just the sheer magnitude of what we’re talking about here. If you put the $2 trillion stimulus bill that was already passed, plus the two earlier bills before that, plus the money the Fed is pouring into the economy, you have more than $6 trillion from the federal government going out into this very troubled economy right now. And the overall economy is only $21 or $22 trillion. So we’re talking about the federal government putting back into the economy a quarter of the nation’s gross output as a way to keep things afloat. And that’s probably one reason why the financial markets haven’t been even worse over the last several weeks than they have been.

MR. COSTA: Peter, it was just a week ago here at this table that we were talking about President Trump’s belief that maybe the economy could reopen by Easter. Now a week later, he seems to be moving toward accepting the grim reality he faces. On Sunday he said now it’s going to go until April 30th, all the social distancing and the stay at home guidelines. What has this week revealed to you as a student of the presidency about President Trump?

MR. BAKER: Yeah, I think that this is a week when those stark numbers that Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci presented began to really sink in, that in fact this is not going to go away. There’s no miracle here. That this is, in fact, going to be a longer-term problem than he had hoped it was going to be. And the message he gave on that briefing, I think it was on Tuesday, he said: Americans have to be prepared for a very, very, very tough couple weeks. Now, it may be longer than a couple weeks. And it may be that he’s still optimistic more than his health advisors.

I think you saw today the disparity between the president’s view and his health advisors’ view when he announced the CDC’s new guidelines, saying that most Americans when they’re out in public should go ahead and wear a mask. And then he immediately said, but I’m not going to do that, right? So he to this day is fully accepting the viewpoints of the medical advisors around him. But it does feel like, you know, there has been at least a little bit more of an acceptance of just how grim this can be. I think somebody got to him and said: This is not going away soon.

Among other things, he looked at the hospital in his home borough of Queens, Elmhurst Hospital, and saw the pictures of them being overwhelmed there. He’s mentioned several times a friend of his, a developer who’s in the hospital, apparently may have a coronavirus and in a coma. These seem to have gotten through to him. And the other thing our reporting showed, and I think your paper did as well, is he was shown polling by his political experts, his political advisors, saying: Hey, the public doesn’t want to return to business as usual too soon, prematurely, if it means that the virus really won’t be contained. The public wants this to be contained. And I think that also convinced him to pivot when it came to these – you know, this Easter idea of returning back too quickly.

MR. COSTA: Yamiche, how committed is the president, based on your reporting, to this current position? We have seen him zig and zag over the last few months about where exactly he wants to go. What are the people around him, from Jared Kushner and others, saying? How do your sources see it all?

MS. ALCINDOR: The feeling I get from my sources, and that I get from just watching the president, is that he is someone who is still reluctant to tell the American people that this could be something that could upend their lives all the way into the summer, and could be completely disruptive to the economy up until the summer. I think Peter’s point about the idea that he was talking about, the masks, and President Trump was saying repeatedly: This is voluntary. He said at one point, maybe it’s good, maybe it’s not, maybe it’ll help, maybe it won’t. I’m certainly not going to do it, because I don’t want to be seen welcoming leaders to the Oval Office – even though, of course, none of them are coming right now. But I don’t want to be seen at the Oval Office with a mask on. So I’m not going to be doing it.

So you already see there the president really, I think, backtracking, or at least hedging more than health officials. I think the other thing that really moved the president, though, was the fact that one – the epicenter right now is New York. That’s where the president is from. It’s where he grew up. Queens is seeing so much – so many issues right now. And he’s watching it on television. And the pictures of body bags at hospitals really moved the president. He brought it up three or four times this week. And it’s something that really stuck with him. And it was, of course, happening again in Queens, where he grew up. So I think this is a president that’s always been moved by TV. And he said this week: I’m watching all this on TV, admitting that he spends a lot of time watching to see what’s going on on the ground. So I think that when we see journalists bringing those images to America, they’re also bringing those images right to the president, and it’s moving him.

MR. COSTA: Jerry, any final thoughts on that theme, about President Trump and what you’re seeing?

MR. SEIB: Well, it just felt to me like this was the week it all came home to the White House. And there was no more pretending this was either going to be short or it could be dismissed in any way. I mean, there’s Gallup survey data out this week that show that 46 million American people may have already been laid off or had their hours at work cut. Well, you know, at this point everybody in the country knows what’s going on. Everybody in the country knows how serious this is, in both medical and economic terms. And this just felt like the week when everybody agreed there’s no denying that.

MR. COSTA: Indeed. Jerry, thank you.

We must leave our political discussion there. Thank you, again, to Yamiche, Peter, and Jerry for your insights and your reporting.

Now, let’s dig deeper on that health care front and get the big picture on where things stand. This week The New York Times, Sarah Kliff and her colleagues, wrote that the coronavirus is ravaging America’s health care system, and the scarcity of ventilators has become an emergency, forcing doctors to make life or death decisions about who gets to breathe and who does not. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo sounded the alarm on Thursday.

NEW YORK GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO (D): (From video.) At the current burn rate, we have about six days.

MR. COSTA: And this week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is advising the president, said the nation should brace for more than 100,000 people to die in the coming months.

NIAID DIRECTOR ANTHONY FAUCI: (From video.) As sobering a number as that is, we should be prepared for it. Is it going to be that much? I hope not. And I think the more we push on the mitigation, the less likelihood it would be that number. But as being realistic, we need to prepare ourselves that that is a possibility that that’s what we will see.

MR. COSTA: Joining me is Sarah Kliff, an investigative reporter for the Times focusing on health care. In terms of ventilators, Sarah, what’s the reality on the ground in many states?

SARAH KLIFF: The reality is hospitals are getting quite close to running out of these things. Ventilators are expensive. They can cost $20(,000), 30,000. So you don’t see hospitals keeping a lot of extra ones around. They usually have on hand only what they need to get through a rough flu season, not what they need to get through the coronavirus pandemic. So we are hearing things about hospitals getting very close to running out. States are making requests to the national stockpile. Hospitals are considering experimental techniques, like using one machine to support multiple patients, using anesthesia machines to deliver ventilation. But the truth is, a lot of doctors, they’re getting quite worried about having to make hard decisions about which patient gets a ventilator and which one doesn’t.

MR. COSTA: Beyond ventilators, take me inside the crunch the health care system is facing nationally as they confront this virus.

MS. KLIFF: Yeah, and this is becoming a crunch really nationwide. What started off as something that Seattle hospitals and New York hospitals were struggling with has grown to a lot of Midwestern cities, Southern cities, places like Milwaukee and Detroit and New Orleans. They are reporting really big increases in the number of coronavirus patients they’re treating, they are changing surgery rooms into intensive-care units, and they are really starting to see what we’ve see in New York City play out where they live. And it is a crunch. It is hard to see all those patients. It is hard to make sure that the staff have enough protective equipment. When I talk to doctors who are treating these patients, you know, they are tired, they are still going in, but they are really, really concerned about what’s ahead of them.

MR. COSTA: Has the testing system improved at all in recent days?

MS. KLIFF: The testing situation is definitely improved from where we were a few weeks ago. We’re seeing private industry get involved. Rapid testing just rolled out so you can get results possibly during an office visit. But at the same time there are still lags. The private companies that are helping out, they have backlogs. I talked to one hospital out in Idaho who was still waiting about a week to get their test results back. So there certainly is improvement, but it is not the case that hospitals are able to get this result – to get these results immediately, and that can challenge how they treat patients and who they isolate and who they don’t.

MR. COSTA: Sarah, we hear so much about medical supplies, but you have spent years covering access in the health-care system. What is the state of access for many low-income Americans who are dealing with the virus?

MS. KLIFF: So there has been some work done to make access better – to provide free testing without copayment for those who have health insurance, to ensure that the cost of treatment will be covered – but it is also the case that, you know, we live in a country where millions of people are uninsured and they have kind of become accustomed to not going to the doctor when they are sick, to waiting it out, to waiting to stay at home because they are worried about such large medical bills. So we don’t really know how someone who’s uninsured, who’s kind of gotten themselves used to not seeing the doctor, what they’re going to do when they have coronavirus symptoms. And while we do have programs rolling out to ensure that no one has to pay for a test, that some of those costs will be covered, I think there’s a pretty open question of whether Americans who are used to those high medical bills are going to even feel comfortable going to the doctor in the first place to seek treatment.

MR. COSTA: Are we seeing any adjustments when it comes to Medicaid or Medicare?

MS. KLIFF: We are seeing generally coverage for these programs. The want people to come in. They want them to get tested. One of the big decisions that was made this week, though, was on the part of the Trump administration, who decided not to open a special enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act. Some states have been doing that, essentially telling people if you’re worried about this, you don’t have health insurance, you can come sign up. The Trump administration is not going to be doing that for our country, so that means there are some people out there who might not have bought insurance in the fall and they are going to be lacking coverage going into the coronavirus pandemic.

MR. COSTA: The Times had some explosive reporting this week about that Comfort ship. We all watched it come into New York Harbor, yet it only has few patients up onboard. What are the challenges in terms of coordination at this point in places like New York?

MS. KLIFF: I think the challenge is you have a lot of people who need treatment and they are trying to stand up these facilities so quickly. There’s the ship. There is a field hospital in Central Park. There is another hospital being stood up in a major conference center. All of those hospitals need supplies. They need ventilators, they need beds, all at the same time. And one of the things we know about the health-care system in America is that it is generally a for-profit business. These companies that are hospitals, that are doctor offices, they’re not stockpiling these supplies. So when you need a lot of these at once, it’s a huge scramble to get all of them. So you’re seeing the federal government, the states, the hospitals, they’re all bidding against each other for the exact same set of supplies, and that’s making things really hard to get. We also have some evidence that it’s driving up the price of really key pieces of equipment. So it’s this everybody scrambling for the same supplies. That makes it really hard to get the supplies actually in place.

MR. COSTA: And, Sarah, finally, as this week ends and you look at your notebook and the whole health-care beat, what are you looking ahead to next week? What matters in terms of health care right now?

MS. KLIFF: What I’m looking at is the fact you’re seeing more and more cities have their own outbreaks. It’s not New York and Seattle anymore; it’s New York and Seattle and Detroit and Milwaukee and New Orleans. And that’s going to be an even bigger crunch on the health-care system. The desire for protective equipment, for ventilators, for hospital beds, that’s going to grow and grow. What we’re going to watch next week is how multiple major cities all battle coronavirus at the same time and try to get the exact same set of supplies.

MR. COSTA: Sarah, thank you very much for your reporting and your time.

MS. KLIFF: Thanks for having me.

MR. COSTA: And thank you for joining us. We will keep taking you as close to the news as we can. And thanks to the Americans who are on the frontlines of this crisis. Your tireless and often quiet work is what sustains us and binds us. I’m Robert Costa. Good night from Washington.


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