Trump Public-Private Partnerships Falter : Politics Podcast : The NPR Politics Podcast Rather than a sweeping national campaign of screening, drive-through sample collection and lab testing, NPR found a smattering of small pilot projects and aborted efforts.

Also, the White House is working to reduce wage rates for foreign guest workers on American farms. Opponents of the plan argue it will hurt vulnerable workers and depress domestic wages.

This episode: campaign correspondent Asma Khalid, White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, national political correspondent Mara Liasson, and investigations correspondent Tim Mak.
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Trump Promised Corporate Partnerships To Fight The Virus. They Haven't Materialized.

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Trump Promised Corporate Partnerships To Fight The Virus. They Haven't Materialized.

Trump Promised Corporate Partnerships To Fight The Virus. They Haven't Materialized.

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MOLLY: Hi. This is Molly (ph).

BRANDON: And Brandon (ph) from Boston, Mass.

MOLLY: We were supposed to get married this Saturday, but our wedding has been postponed.

BRANDON: This podcast was recorded at...


2:10 p.m. on Monday, April 13.

MOLLY: Much like our wedding date, things may have changed by the time you hear this.

BRANDON: Here's the show.



KHALID: Postponing a wedding is no fun.


KHALID: But on the upside, having a wedding in spring in Boston is always a little risky, so hopefully, you'll be able to get married when the weather in Boston is slightly better. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I'm covering the presidential campaign.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KHALID: And we're joined by our old Washington desk friend Tim Mak. He's now part of NPR's Investigations Team. Hey, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

KHALID: Exactly one month ago, President Trump had this to say.


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

KHALID: And, Tim, your team - NPR's Investigations Team - found that many of the promises Trump made at that moment when he declared this national emergency have largely been unkept. So take us back in time, and remind us what the president actually said would happen.

MAK: So there was this big press address in the Rose Garden on March 13, and the president was flanked by leaders from giant retailers and medical testing companies. And he promised a mobilization of public and private resources to attack this crisis.


TRUMP: At the same time, we've been in discussions with pharmacies and retailers to make drive-through tests available in the critical locations identified by public health professionals. The goal is for individuals to be able to drive up and be swabbed without having to leave your car.

MAK: And he said he was working at this drive-through testing situation at national retailers so that there would be a website integrating screening, directing you to a drive-through testing location and presenting results.


TRUMP: I want to thank Google. Google is helping to develop a website. It's going to be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past, to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location.

MAK: The Investigations Team looked into each of the claims that the president made that day. And let's just focus on one major claim - those drive-through testing sites he said would be underway at national retailers. So NPR contacted all the retailers that were present at that event and found that there has not been any sort of widescale implementation of drive-through testing at those retailers. Walmart has opened two testing sites. Walgreens has opened two testing sites. CVS has opened four. And Target, which was also at the Rose Garden address, has not opened any. In fact, the company said it had no formal partnership with the federal government right now and that it was waiting for the government and state governments to take the lead.

LIASSON: Wow. That is only eight places. That's just extraordinary.

MAK: Right. The idea that there are only eight sites, compared to the scale of the crisis, really shows you how little has been accomplished in these public-private partnerships.

KHALID: So you mentioned, Tim, that Target has no relationship with the federal government. I guess I'm just confused as to why this all fell apart.

MAK: Well, it seems to me that there were a number of things that led to the - led to some of these outcomes. Firstly, it seems that the president made a lot of promises without understanding his authority and without properly consulting with a lot of these companies about their capacity. And so a lot of these announcements were kind of done off the cuff without proper planning, and so very few of them have actually panned out.

LIASSON: A lot of the criticisms of the White House have been about execution - that they can't seem to get a process, they can't seem to make things happen - in other words, you know, the testing, the PPE equipment, the requests from governors - it's just - this is all a big execution competence exercise. And, you know, for whatever reason - because the president gets distracted, because more focus is put into the briefings and the kind of public message than the nitty-gritty details of getting these things done - they're just not happening.

MAK: Another issue with implementation and execution was this issue with Google. The president said on March 13 that there were 1,700 Google engineers working on this website that would integrate screening, direct you to a drive-through testing site and then provide you your test results. But that never happened, and no screening and testing website has ever been developed by Google in the weeks since.

In fact, you know, Google wasn't even the lead on this project. There was this company called Verily. It's a sister company to Google owned by the same parent company. And they have set up this pilot program out in California at the direction of the California state government, and they've got six sites only available to residents of California in five counties. And there were never 1,700 engineers engaged in that project. According to Verily, it was probably closer to about around a thousand. So that whole project turned out to be nothing like what it was advertised a month ago.

KHALID: So, Tim, there was a promise that the president also made around loosening regulations to allow some additional flexibility for agencies to respond to the crisis. And we should point out it feels like there has been some of that that has occurred. Is that correct?

MAK: Yes. While most of the promises that the president made on March 13 have not been kept, there were a few that he made that were. And they largely were promises that the federal government exclusively could handle, right? But there were some issues with regulations as well. I mean, the president said that he would waive regulations to allow doctors to operate in states where they weren't originally licensed, for example. But that's a state-based issue, and that's not in his power to waive. So that was another issue. The president did say that he would pause interest on student loans held by the federal government, and he has done that.

LIASSON: You know, the funny thing is, sometimes, the president is the victim of his own success. He measures his success in terms of the media, dominating the media - the big announcement, the big Rose Garden ceremony, you know, ratings for his news briefings. And sometimes, that's what matters the most to him. Now, it's true that behind the scenes, Vice President Pence has been working with the governors. Governors are saying in many ways - not all, but in many ways - they're getting what they're asking for from the federal government. But the problem is that if he didn't make such extravagant promises that weren't kept, his credibility would not be taking the hit that it is.

We're entering a chapter now in this crisis where competence and execution matters even more because the president is talking about opening up the economy, which is an incredibly complex operation that needs really careful, detailed planning and execution because you have to test a lot of people. You have to decide who's immune, who can go back to work, which parts of the country do you want to open up because people's lives are going to be at stake here. So we're entering a period where you can't just kind of bluff and bluster your way through.

KHALID: All right, Tim. Well, thank you for coming back as always to hang out with us on the podcast.

MAK: Thanks for having me.

KHALID: All right, let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk about a new White House proposal to save farmers money during this pandemic by cutting wages for foreign workers. We'll be right back.

And we're back, and we're joined now by White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Hey, Franco.


KHALID: Well, Franco, you had an exclusive story over the weekend about how the Trump administration is hoping to save farmers money. And I imagine they're looking at that because farmers have been hurt by the pandemic.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, right. I mean, it's the latest effort that has been pushed by the Trump administration to help U.S. farmers who - as you note, they say they're really struggling amid all the major disruptions in the agricultural supply chain. And they say they need help. I mean, just as an example, there was an announcement on Friday directing the USDA to develop a program to provide at least $16 billion in relief to farmers and ranchers hurt by the coronavirus.

LIASSON: And American farmers were already struggling before the pandemic. We had record farm bankruptcies in a number of states. They were being hurt by the trade war with China, and the Trump administration had been already sending them massive amounts of relief money to cushion them for the losses in business with China.

KHALID: Right. So, Franco, on top of this direct payment program that the Trump administration has been doing, you reported on something else that the White House has been considering.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. This is one of actually the first big pushes by the new White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows. He is working with the agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, to see how they can reduce wage rates for foreign guest workers on American farms. Those are workers who are here on H-2A visas. And the idea is if they can help U.S. farmers struggling during the coronavirus, but opponents say that these farmers and the Department of Agriculture and the White House are trying to take advantage of a crisis to push down wages not only for the vulnerable farm workers, but it can also undercut wages of domestic workers - of U.S. workers - who are working in the same area.

KHALID: So, Franco, how is this idea being perceived at this point?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, it's made some really strange bedfellows of labor and immigrant rights groups as well as immigration hardliners who are usually aligned with the president's agenda. You know, these two groups, they're both critical of the program but for, as you might imagine, very different reasons. Folks like Erik Nicholson of the United Farm Workers, for example - they just say that the focus needs to be on protecting these essential workers, these vulnerable workers, at a time where they're already risking their lives to bring people their food.

ERIK NICHOLSON: I don't understand how they can sit down for a meal, look at the fruits and vegetables and the animal protein that may be on their plate and be thinking about, let's try to pay these people less.

ORDOÑEZ: And groups on the right, they argue that the administration is basically bending to the will of the agriculture lobby. I spoke with Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies. He says, you know, look. They may be in trouble, but this is another reason to, you know, wean themselves off of foreign labor because it's all about cheap labor.

MARK KRIKORIAN: So the point here is to cheapen the labor. That's the point. This is - you know, H-2A program is a cheap labor program anyway. This is to make it a cheaper labor program.

LIASSON: You know, speaking of strange bedfellows, I think that's going to become the theme for the politics of this entire crisis because you just had Republicans voting in the Senate unanimously for the biggest infusion of federal money into the economy ever. Republicans voted for sick leave. They voted for income support even though it was temporary.

And you're going to have a lot of people supporting things that they never could have thought - they never would have thought they would before. For instance, Republican Senator Josh Hawley - really conservative guy - wants the United States to adopt a European-style subsidy program where the federal government would pay 80% of people's salaries to prevent layoffs. So, you know, in this agriculture program, in other ways, big government populism has come back because of COVID-19. The question is, does it last after the pandemic and in what form?

KHALID: All right. Well, that is all the political news we have for today. But we want to tell you about something new that we tried last week. We taped our Can't Let It Go segment on video. If you missed that and you want to see what it's like to tape the podcast, you can head over to our Facebook group. You can join by going to I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.

ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I cover the White House.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

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


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