President Trump Declares National Emergency Amid The Coronavirus Pandemic President Trump declared a national emergency Friday afternoon amid growing concern about the coronavirus outbreak across the United States. The move, widely expected, frees up $50 billion for states to deal with the crisis.

This week former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders both criticized President Trump for his handling of the pandemic. The virus has now reshaped how candidates will campaign ahead of the next round of primaries only days away.

This episode: Congressional correspondents Susan Davis and Kelsey Snell, White House correspondent Tamara Keith, and political correspondents Scott Detrow and Asma Khalid.
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President Trump Declares National Emergency Amid The Coronavirus Pandemic

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President Trump Declares National Emergency Amid The Coronavirus Pandemic

President Trump Declares National Emergency Amid The Coronavirus Pandemic

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Hey, there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: I'm Kelsey Snell. I also cover Congress.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: And I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: And it is currently 4:00 p.m. on Friday, March 13. And President Trump is still speaking at the White House, but we want to get into what they are announcing today. The federal government is stepping up its response to the coronavirus crisis, and President Trump is declaring a national emergency.


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

DAVIS: Tam, what does a national emergency mean, and what is it going to do to combat the spread of the virus?

KEITH: We don't know the exact mechanisms that the president is using to do this. But what we do know is that he says $50 billion in federal assistance will be able to go to state and local governments who are overwhelmed by the coronavirus. It will also allow things like FEMA to come in and help build tents outside of hospitals for treating patients in areas where there's just an overload of people. In some ways, this is getting ahead of where it is right now, but the idea is to be ready for when more cases come. And also, it lifts some of the regulatory burdens. It frees up the ability for, say, doctors to cross state lines and go to an area where more help is needed.

DAVIS: Tam, the president has been taking a lot of hits politically for how his administration has handled the crisis, specifically the lack of availability for testing. How has the White House been responding to those criticisms?

KEITH: Well, there have been times where the president has insisted against reality that if you want a test, you can get a test. Well, the fact is people haven't been able to get tests. There have been major backlogs and problems, first with the development of the test, and then with the distribution, and then new problems came about. But the White House announced today that a private company has developed a new, rapid test that has been rapidly approved for use. Walmart is going to volunteer its parking lots to be used for drive-thru testing. It could take a while for this all to get ramped up. Also, the White House says that Google is going to set up an online form for people to go through to figure out, if they aren't feeling well, whether they should go get tested.

DAVIS: Kelsey, this has got to be welcome news on Capitol Hill.

SNELL: This is definitely welcome news up here in the capital, where they've been looking for Trump to outline specific things that he is going to do within the powers that he has. But they want to do a lot more than this, and they're actually in the process of trying to get a bill passed right now. And I thought it was really, really striking that at no point in time in his opening remarks did President Trump ever even mention the fact that his treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin has been in these ongoing talks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on a pretty significant bill that Democrats hope to pass today to address some of the economic concerns particularly and the food security concerns and the testing concerns that people have.

DAVIS: I want to talk about what Congress is trying to do. But first, I think we should note that coronavirus has really affected the way the government is operating, too. It's a totally different scene up there on the Capitol.

SNELL: Oh, it's incredibly strange here in the capital right now. They eliminated public tours starting today through the end of the month. And right now, the only people who are allowed inside of the Capitol or the office buildings are staff, credentialed press members and official business visitors. So it is kind of spooky around the Capitol right now because it's the peak of tourist season in Washington, D.C. We're waiting for the cherry blossoms to bloom, and it's spring break time.

DAVIS: Field trips.

SNELL: Oh, gosh. This is peak field trip time, as you know.

KEITH: All field trips are canceled. I mean, let's just be clear. Like, this is not a normal time. Nothing is normal anywhere in the country at this point.

SNELL: No. And right now, it's a very skeleton crew of reporters running around from hallway to hallway trying to figure out exactly what is going on with this bill.

DAVIS: So the president is declaring this national emergency, but Congress is still struggling to come up with a bipartisan response to the crisis. Kelsey, what are the kinds of things Congress is trying to do?

SNELL: Well, the bill that Democrats have put forward, the original bill that they have kind of been working on tweaking with the White House, includes paid family and sick leave. It includes expanded unemployment insurance so that people who have to stop working because of the virus or are on quarantine have access to a pretty significant - almost two-thirds of their salary. It also includes food security measures. And those things include, you know, making sure that students who get free and reduced lunches at school have access to food, making sure that mothers of young children have expanded access to their food benefits. There are a lot of things to kind of shore up the way that people use the systems that already exist.

DAVIS: Speaker Nancy Pelosi also had a press conference on Capitol Hill, and she talked about some of the priorities in the bill.


NANCY PELOSI: The three most important parts of this bill are testing, testing, testing. This legislation facilitates free coronavirus testing for everyone who needs a test, including the uninsured.

DAVIS: It sounds like there's a lot of disagreement between the White House and Congress, but they're at least agreeing that the end goal is there needs to be much more available mass testing, and soon.

SNELL: Right. But, you know, as we mentioned, the president is still giving this press conference while we were taping. And while he was doing this press conference, he told reporters that - he said, quote, "we just don't think they" - being the Democrats - "are giving enough."

DAVIS: What does that even mean?

SNELL: That's the problem that I keep hearing from staff all day long, is they don't know exactly what Republicans want to do to this bill. Part of the problem here - and, Sue, you and I have been talking about this extensively over the past two days - is that Republicans really don't like watching Democrats essentially set up open-ended programs that are social benefits that don't have a clear way to be paid for.

DAVIS: And Democrats aren't able to say, because we simply don't know the scope of the crisis, how many Americans it could affect or how much it's going to cost.

SNELL: Right. Their explanation when we asked them about that is, essentially, they can't really address, A, the thing that they don't know. And, B, they can't stop the process of making sure that people who are losing their jobs or who have to stay home to take care of a child whose school is closing - they can't stop and wait to find out the answers before giving those people an opportunity to kind of fill the gaps in their paychecks because if this keeps going - people being out of work, people having to put their lives on hold - that could lead to bigger problems - say, like not paying mortgages on a large scale.

DAVIS: Tam, I get that Republicans in the White House aren't necessarily thrilled about things like expanding federal benefits or unemployment insurance or more spending that isn't offset, but it also seems like politically, those are really hard cases - philosophical government cases - to make against legislation that could help many people in real time.

KEITH: The sense that I get is that they're just trying to get to yes. And...

DAVIS: Yeah.

KEITH: It's just not clear how they get to yes. And the other thing is this isn't the end. The country is in a rapidly evolving situation. No one knows how much worse this is going to get. There are projections that are absolutely horrifying both for the economy and for the number of people who could get sick and what it could mean for the hospital systems in the country. And so whatever happens with this, there is likely to be another big bill to come right after it or maybe another one after that as this continues to evolve.

SNELL: Yeah. Democrats have promised as much - that they - that this is just - this is even the first bite of the apple because, remember, they have already passed a coronavirus-related aid bill. This would be their second attempt, and they have promised that it would take them potentially less than a week before they come and do the third portion.

KEITH: One thing that I will say about the dynamics between this White House and the Congress as it is right now is that if President Trump decides that this is something he's going to support, then enough Republicans will fall in line. It's just a matter of figuring out what it is that he will support.

DAVIS: All right. I'm going to let you guys get back to reporting, and we're going to take a quick break. And when we come back, we'll talk about how the coronavirus has been affecting the Democratic candidates and the campaign trail.

KEITH: All right. Bye, Sue.

SNELL: All right, guys. I'm off to go stand in some hallways.


DAVIS: And we're back, and we've got Asma Khalid and Scott Detrow on the line. Hey, guys.



DAVIS: So coronavirus upending everything right now - over at the White House, on Capitol Hill and now on the campaign trail. Both Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden felt the need to give their own speeches this week. Here's what they had to say.


BERNIE SANDERS: Unfortunately, in this time of international crisis, it is clear to me, at least, that we have an administration that is largely incompetent and whose incompetence and recklessness have threatened the lives of many, many people in our country.

JOE BIDEN: Anyone who needs to be tested based on medical guidance should be tested at no charge. The administration's failure on testing is colossal, and it's a failure of planning, leadership and execution.

DAVIS: Asma, clearly, so many politics at play here - but why do Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders feel the need to also respond to the coronavirus crisis?

KHALID: I mean, part of this is no doubt political, right? But part of this is also - for both of them, they addressed a sort of moral failing. Biden talked a lot about the need for a global, coordinated response. He feels like travel bans are not necessarily the most appropriate way to be dealing with this crisis. And for both of them, this really came down to a major fault that they've seen with the Trump administration around testing.

There is a frustration, I would say, you know, sort of broadly right now in the country around how slow it has been to administer testing, and both of them talked about that. Biden specifically talked about the slowness of things, in his view, being because the Trump administration has hollowed out agencies. And so, you know, he felt like no president in the future can promise to prevent future outbreaks, but he feels like they could do better. And they both made a point of saying if they were president, they would lead with science.

DETROW: And for Sanders, obviously, health care has been a central part of his campaign message since day one, so it was interesting over the last week to see him adapt each day to mentioning coronavirus and quickly pivoting to his signature health care plans to making a point to speak a little bit about it in his stump speeches to holding events specifically about coronavirus to canceling rallies. And now this week, for a couple of reasons - also because there aren't many other ways to campaign, which we're going to talk about - he's just having daily press conferences and statements on this crisis.

DAVIS: I mean, it does seem to be this moment where, for the country at large, it's sort of crystallizing of - you think about leadership. You think about the presidency. And who do you want in charge? And you have these sort of side-by-side-by-side comparisons of different styles, different personalities and people outlining different strategies right as voters are in the middle of casting ballots in a presidential election.

DETROW: For sure. And for Joe Biden, this has been such a big part of his candidacy from Day 1 - right? - to say that President Trump does not have the temperament, does not have the approach to be president and that Biden would restore normalcy in a big part of way. So you can see that coming through in every speech that Joe Biden in particular is giving this week.

DAVIS: There is something about this moment that is particularly well-suited for Joe Biden because if voters are thinking about who they want in the Oval Office to get the country through a national crisis, Biden is the candidate right now who can say, I've already done that. He was in the White House with President Barack Obama during the financial crisis from '08 through '09, and you could argue even longer, and he helped head up the administration's recovery effort.

And looking back on that more than a decade later, it was largely a success. The country came through that financial crisis, and it was - a lot of the administration's efforts were seen as a success, even if they weren't popular at the time. So Biden is the candidate that can say, I've already done this; let me do it again.

KHALID: And that's certainly something his campaign is aware of. I mean, part of this is also about style. So I was in Delaware as he was delivering this speech, and he was flanked by five American flags. He was dressed in a suit and tie. And he was trying to deliver this, you know, calm, sober message in contrast to the administration that at times has seemed to present a somewhat ad hoc approach to how to deal with this crisis.

DAVIS: So how are the campaigns moving forward if they can't hold rallies and they can't canvass and they can't do get-out-the-vote operations?

DETROW: It's very, very strange. There are primaries in Arizona, Illinois, Ohio, Florida next week. And since the last primary day, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden aren't going to campaign in any of these states. Both campaigns have released statements saying they've asked their staff to work from home. They're not going to have any more rallies, which is, you know, such a given at this point and, frankly, for the last few days of rallies, was such a question of, why are all these people out here? And you're seeing them try to scramble.

Weirdly enough, this is the second time that Bernie Sanders has had to deal with this kind of challenge. He was stuck in Washington, D.C., in an impeachment trial in the final weeks before the Iowa caucuses. And even though he, like every other Democratic senator, said this job comes first, this is more important, his campaign really felt like they lost some momentum that way.

You know, the other thing I've been thinking about is, about a week before all this happened, I did a really long story for our website and for Morning Edition about the fact that Bernie Sanders really made this livestreaming effort central to his campaign strategy. They put a lot of resources and a lot of thought into it and really make a point to livestream all of their events and raise money and build community around those livestreams. Stuff like that is just so much more important now. But, of course, there's no real substitute for a big exciting rally to rev up your supporters and volunteers to get out there and vote for you and get their friends to vote for you and knock on some doors.

KHALID: So similar to the Sanders campaign, all of the Biden campaign employees are expected to work from home. They say that their offices, their headquarters are going to be closed to the public. He does have a couple of virtual town halls that are supposed to be held - one today in Illinois, another in Florida on Monday. Though to be blunt, the sort of question for me is, like, how you have a geographically focused virtual town hall because in the age of, like, virtual and digital, everything kills feels amorphous in that anybody can log on from anywhere.

But I will say, you know, Scott, you were making the comparison to impeachment; in some ways, this feels like an even greater challenge because, you know, I know the Sanders campaign has said that they're not doing door-to-door canvassing because of the threat of the coronavirus. At least during impeachment, they could do that; they can't even do that aspect of organizing now.

DAVIS: I don't know if we have the answers, but there's obviously so many questions going forward into the - I think we're calling them the St. Patty's Day primaries - Ohio, Florida, Arizona, Illinois.

KHALID: (Laughter).

DAVIS: One thing I think of is three of those four states are states with a lot of elderly populations and the exact demographic that is especially vulnerable to coronavirus. So I think we're all wondering, what does this do to turnout? Are people afraid to show up and vote? Which is not exactly something that you can social distance if you're standing in line, if you're sharing voting machines. So I think that's one thing that has both the campaigns and voters pretty nervous right now.

DETROW: Yeah. And then the other thing that Sanders is doing is the textbook play that you saw during the 2008 financial crisis from Senator Barack Obama. If you've got a day job, it's important to show up and do your day job. He's going to apparently be spending time in Washington, D.C., at the U.S. Senate over the next few days, as the Senate works through some sort of relief package.

The interesting thing I've been thinking about is the fact that, Sue, even though you pointed out that the Troubled Asset Relief Program and all the other things passed in 2008, 2009 did definitely save the economy - there's acknowledgment of that - they're still deeply unpopular and TARP, the bailout, especially is a huge boo line at every single Bernie Sanders rally. So I'm really watching to see what he pushes for and how he votes, depending on the mix of propping up for big companies compared to people who don't have, you know, paid sick leave and things like that.

KHALID: So there is definitely an unknown in terms of how the virus will affect turnout, how it will affect people showing up to the polls. I know there are some concerns that a number of poll workers, you know, particularly in a state like Florida, they're elderly - and so what that might even just mean for how the polls operate. I will say that in Florida, you know, there has been a big push to encourage people to vote by mail. That's been an ongoing push that the Democratic Party's had for a while.

But I want to point out that we've already seen one state, Louisiana - it's not voting until later in April - they have announced that they'll be postponing their primary. And in response, Biden's deputy campaign manager put out a statement that basically says, you know, hey, if you're healthy, please come out and vote. Obviously, if you're not healthy, then they encourage you to explore absentee ballots or maybe you vote by mail.

DAVIS: Fascinating to see Louisiana. I'm not - I can't recall the last time a state decided to postpone its presidential primary. I think it was scheduled for April 4; it's now going to be until the summertime where I think people will feel like hopefully the coronavirus is under control and clearly one of those things we're going to be watching as we move forward through the primary calendar to see if more states decide to do the same.

OK, well, we're going to take a quick break, and when we get back, it's time for Can't Let it Go.

And we're back. And it's time to end the show like we do every week, with Can't Let It Go, the part of the show where we talk about the things from the week that we can't stop thinking about, politics or otherwise. Asma, what can't you let go this week?

KHALID: So obviously, what I cannot let go of is related to the coronavirus 'cause I'm like pretty much every other person in this country right now. And I think what I find most interesting is - I was out with Joe Biden the other day. And he made - he gave this line in his speech where he basically told folks that, like, look; we got to change our culture and our way of being. You can't really shake hands with anyone - or don't hug people.

And I feel like there's been a lot of talk about how do you greet somebody if you don't shake hands and if you're not going to give them a hug. And people have come up with all these alternative ways of doing this. I don't know if you all have engaged in any one of these. Some of them, I think...

DAVIS: I've done some elbow bumps.

KHALID: You did some elbow bumps. OK, so that one feels OK to me. I have heard about the touching feet. That I don't really - don't feel comfortable with. Like, you...

DAVIS: It just feels awkward.

KHALID: Yeah, I feel like that feels very awkward. Some people said you could just, like, wave or give a nod. The nod feels all right with me. Air kisses was, like, an - also a suggestion. That one I don't also feel particularly comfortable with.

DETROW: As - obviously this is a very serious situation, but I am someone who a lot of my friends know has kind of hated, like, social hugs for a long time. So I'm feeling that particular aspect of things. This is my moment to shine. You know, wave. You can wave.

KHALID: The wave is good. And I - my personal favorite was just say hello. Like, you don't actually need to hug (laughter). You could merely just say hello. And that's, like, totally socially acceptable. So anyhow...

DAVIS: Yeah, just like eye contact and a smile and a hello is just as pleasant as a handshake.

KHALID: Pull out some hand sanitizer. Offer to share that.

DAVIS: Scott, what can't you let go this week?

DETROW: Oh, a lot. I'm trying to keep this positive. I mean, I've been keeping a journal for the last few years. I've talked to you guys about it. And I was looking back, and I was like, oh, this is starting to feel like a primary source-type document - type-situation at the moment as I recount things.

One really unexpected area of calming and escape from this - and this might not be the case for everybody - is a couple of our editors recommended to me a book. It was a bestseller a couple of years ago, so a lot of listeners might know about it already. Barry Hardiman and Eric McDaniel both recommended this book called "Station Eleven," which - wait for it - is a post-apocalyptic book about a flu pandemic that wipes out 99% of the population.

This may not be your jam right now. But for me, it weirdly was. And it follows a Shakespeare troupe that goes around the Midwest performing Shakespeare in the post-flu apocalypse. And it was one of those books that - I got it at the airport and, even with a very busy campaign schedule, tore through it in a matter of, like, four days. And it was very strange to find comfort in a book like that. But for me, that did it. If you feel like that would make you more nervous, maybe wait until late summer to read it. But it was a really, really great book.

DAVIS: Maybe wait for the movie.

DETROW: Wait for the movie. I think it might be an HBO series coming, I saw online.

DAVIS: I'd say I want to borrow your copy, but I feel like I need to rub it down with hand sanitizer before I do.


KHALID: Wipe it down.

DETROW: What about you, Sue?

DAVIS: Well, I think we've got a theme of the week because all our...


DAVIS: ...Can't Let It Gos are somewhat coronavirus-related - somewhat - although I would say the thing that I can't let go about at all this week is the toilet paper.


DAVIS: Like, what is with the toilet paper, America? I am sure people listening to this podcast and all over the country have been in their Facebook feeds, on social media, even in their own lives - we are a country of hoarders of toilet paper, and I am amused by it in these dark times of coronavirus.

DETROW: I will say that as I stocked up, I did hoard one thing - and your both toddler parents as well, so you might appreciate it. I hoarded...

DAVIS: It's whiskey, isn't it?

DETROW: (Laughter) More than a gallon of bubble fluid to, like, make - to blow bubbles with - a gallon.

DAVIS: So that'll get you through, like, three days with a toddler.

KHALID: I thought you were going to diapers, Scott. I honestly thought that's what you were going for (laughter).

DETROW: Oh, no, bubbles.

DAVIS: Where did you get the bubble stuff? Because that might be a good - that's a good pro tip.

DETROW: It was Target. I was like, you know what? I might need this amount of bubble blowing in the next few weeks if daycare is closed.

DAVIS: The thing about the toilet paper, too, is you've just been seeing people talk all week about buying toilet paper, can't find the toilet paper, I've got all the toilet paper. And then I was looking at Facebook last night, and a friend of mine from high school posted this on Facebook. And I was home alone, and I just started cracking up because he just posted on Facebook, and it said, toilet papering someone's house right now would be a massive flex...


DAVIS: ...Because everyone is hoarding the toilet paper. So if you just really want to show off in the neighborhood, toilet paper your neighbor's house just to send a message.

DETROW: I would bet that, Sue, you've probably done that in your life. Asma, I don't know.

DAVIS: Neither confirm nor deny. I have no comment on that.

DETROW: (Laughter).

DAVIS: All right, that's a wrap for today. We'll be back late Sunday night to talk about everything that happened at the debate between former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders. And remember to keep up with all the latest news on the coronavirus by listening to Up First, NPR's daily morning news podcast.

Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producer is Barton Girdwood. Our production assistant is Chloe Weiner. Thanks to Lexie Schapitl, Dana Farrington, Brandon Carter, Maya Gandhi and Meredith Roden (ph).

I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

KHALID: I'm Asma Khalid. I'm covering the presidential campaign.

DETROW: And I'm Scott Detrow. I am also covering the campaign.

DAVIS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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