(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the presidential campaign.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.
DETROW: It is 1:30 Eastern on Friday, October 2. President Trump and first lady Melania Trump have both tested positive for the coronavirus. Tam, you and I did a podcast on this at 8:30. It's five hours later. We know a little bit more. And we're going to talk through this enormous story in a broader conversation. I'll just say again, this is something that is going to have a massive impact on the presidential campaign and could have a massive impact on the governing of the country. We don't know what that impact will be just yet.
DETROW: So let's start off with what we have learned since we last talked. First of all, the president is symptomatic.
KEITH: Yes. The president and the first lady are experiencing mild symptoms, according to a tweet from the first lady. And, also, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows came outside. He did talk to reporters and gave an update on the president. He says the president remains engaged, in good spirits and had already given him a to-do list when they spoke in the morning.
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MARK MEADOWS: He has mild symptoms. As we look at that, the doctor will continue to provide expertise in the residence. He's in the residence now. And in true fashion, he's probably critiquing the way that I'm answering these questions.
DETROW: Important to say - we have not seen or heard from the president directly yet, though.
KEITH: No. And he hasn't tweeted yet, which is unusual. A few other little data points here - Meadows says that other close key staff have been tested and tested negative today, including Jared Kushner, the president's social media director Dan Scavino, and also Meadows himself.
DETROW: And last question to you, Tam, on the latest tick-tock of all of this - what else have we learned on the timeline of when the White House first started realizing there was a big problem here?
KEITH: Yeah, so this is really interesting. Meadows said that they first received confirmation that Trump's close aide Hope Hicks had tested positive for the virus just as President Trump was leaving the White House yesterday to travel to a fundraiser. They discovered it right as Marine One was preparing to take off. They actually pulled some people off of the trip who had been traveling with Hicks and had been in close contact.
But then President Trump flew to New Jersey, to his golf club at Bedminster in New Jersey and attended a fundraiser that raised $5 million for his campaign and the Republican Party. An RNC official told me that there were a series of precautions taken. Everyone who attended was tested and screened and maintained six feet of distance from President Trump. And, of course, we now know that a few hours later, President Trump got a confirmatory test showing he had the virus.
DETROW: Mara, I don't even know where to start on putting this in big-picture context, but I guess, to me, I mean, there's the enormous question of how sick the president of the United States gets. But this has been a campaign all about coronavirus, and the candidate who dismissed it, who minimized it, who presided over big rallies with no masks, now has it.
LIASSON: Right. I mean, the one thing about President Trump is he dominates the media narrative, for better or for worse. This campaign has been all about him all along. And what he's been struggling to do recently is try to make the campaign not about COVID-19, not about his handling of the coronavirus. Well, that effort has just come to a screeching halt.
This is probably the most intense example of how it's always all about him. In this case, we're not going to be talking about the SCOTUS nominee. We're not going to be talking about mail-in balloting. We're going to be talking about him - his symptoms, how long he'll be off the trail, where did he get it? That's what is going to dominate the media narrative going forward.
LIASSON: And that is not where he wants to be.
KEITH: He needed to find a way to make this not a referendum on President Trump and his handling of the coronavirus and his stewardship of the presidency. He needed to do something to change the narrative. Instead, this, like, supercharges the narrative. It focuses all the attention on coronavirus.
LIASSON: Yes, and all the attention on the things he said about it - how it affects virtually nobody, how he belittled people who wear masks including Joe Biden in the debate, how the Republican Party said that Biden was staying in his basement. Now Joe Biden looks like he was maybe doing the right thing. We don't know what the political fallout will be of this, but we know that the narrative, which the president likes to control, is now out of his control.
DETROW: And I think both on that political point about the narrative but also on the real-world point of the implications of all of this, we happen to have seen an example of the president and his family and his close aides honestly kind of exhibiting risky behavior, not wearing masks. Obviously, the president was on the debate stage, and he wasn't going to wear a mask. He was about 15 feet apart from Joe Biden and Chris Wallace. But his family and top staff were sitting in the audience unmasked. We had mentioned that earlier in the podcast this morning.
Joe Biden's campaign - we said this before; it's worth saying again - has taken coronavirus seriously all along, have put a lot of precautions on place. We've only heard two very brief statements from Joe Biden today. This morning, pretty basic - he sent his thoughts to President Trump and first lady Melania Trump, you know, urging a swift recovery for them. He said he'll pray for the health and safety of the president and his family.
The day went on. There were a lot of questions about what would happen to Joe Biden, who, again, was, like, 15 feet from the president. A little while ago, the campaign released a statement from Biden's personal physician saying that both Joe and Jill Biden were tested again this morning. They've both tested negative, and Biden is continuing his plans to travel to Michigan to campaign today.
LIASSON: Right. And we don't know - because we don't know what course the virus is going to take with the president - we don't know how long the president will be sidelined.
LIASSON: Will he ever get back to holding big rallies? What happens to the next couple of debates? Are they going to go forward? It's - lots of things are up in the air.
KEITH: And I would just add that I don't know that we know that this is done. Mark Meadows kind of alluded to this - that they expect there to be more cases. I don't think we're done with this.
DETROW: We've been talking through the campaign implications, but probably more important immediately is what this does for the federal government, who the president is, of course, in charge of. Tam, what sort of activity and statements and reassurances have you seen from your perch today on that front?
KEITH: Well, interestingly, there was one item on the president's agenda today that did not get knocked off the agenda. It was to be a call with governors about protecting seniors from coronavirus. And the president did not actually end up showing up for that call. It ended up being Vice President Mike Pence. I have confirmed this with a state official invited to that call.
So, you know, I do think, though, that Mark Meadows came out. He gave this statement. He is trying to project that the president of the United States is still engaged and involved. We also saw Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin say that he tested negative, the attorney general saying he tested negative, secretary of state saying he tested negative. And, of course, most importantly for the chain of command, Vice President Mike Pence also testing negative. So there was a rapid effort to make sure everybody got a swab in their nose so that they could say, OK, you know, we've got people in this government; this government is still functioning.
DETROW: Well, this is a story we are covering on every single platform imaginable, and we will continue to keep you updated as soon as we learn key new facts on this. Tam, you've been up all night. We're going to let you go and get some rest.
KEITH: Thank you.
DETROW: I'll talk to you soon.
KEITH: Yeah. Thanks.
DETROW: We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we'll talk about how this is playing out in Congress, as well as some other congressional updates, including the fact that this might put a big wrench in the plans for a very quick vote on the next Supreme Court nominee.
And we're back and joined by Claudia Grisales. Hey, Claudia.
CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Hi there.
DETROW: If you didn't have enough massive stories to...
DETROW: ...Get reaction to from lawmakers, you just got another one. What are key members of Hill leadership saying about this, honestly, shocking news that the president of the United States has coronavirus?
GRISALES: Yes. We have seen an outpouring of support, of concerns from both sides of the aisle today. For example, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed sympathies for him. He said this underscores - he spoke to Hugh Hewitt this morning - he said this underscores that the coronavirus is not concerned about the election and that, however, you know, they would proceed as well as they could under these new developments with the business of Congress at hand.
Pelosi, meanwhile, said that they received the news with great sadness. She said she always prays for the president and his family, that they're safe. She called it tragic and sad and said perhaps this is just another level of awareness that we'll see here - how important that is.
DETROW: Well, on that note, we've talked so much about the - honestly, the big disparity between Democratic officials and Republican officials on wearing masks. Mike Lee, the Utah Republican, was not wearing a mask when he met recently with Judge Amy Coney Barrett. He says he now has tested positive for coronavirus.
LIASSON: Claudia, Mike Lee is on the Judiciary Committee, right?
GRISALES: Exactly. So this...
LIASSON: So what does that do to the October 12 date for the start of the hearings for Judge Barrett?
GRISALES: Right now, we've heard from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the chairman of the committee - this is South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham - and they both say it's still on track. October 12, the hearings will begin as planned. Mike Lee himself said he is going to quarantine for 10 days - and this is an option under CDC requirements, depending on certain cases. And so he says that's his plan. He'll be ready to go on the 12.
But it is a wrinkle. Coronavirus was one of those wild cards during this process to confirm Amy Coney Barrett, and here we are. We have lots of questions - probably more questions than answers - on how this is going to proceed in time. And again, she did meet with about 30 senators on the Capitol this week, including Lee. He was part of the first day of meetings. A lot of these meetings were photographed, and video was taken, and members and Amy Coney Barrett were seen without masks, not very well socially distanced.
And so we are still waiting for what the repercussions of all this is going to be - the contact tracing to reveal the web of contacts that Sen. Lee or anybody else may have had during this process. He just tested positive Thursday. He said he started to experience these allergy-like symptoms. So we're not really clear who else may have been in contact with him and who else needs to get tested.
LIASSON: Yeah. Claudia, how about Amy Coney Barrett herself? Do we know if she's been tested?
GRISALES: Yes. So a White House official said that she is tested daily, and she tested negative as of today. But as we know, this is a day-by-day process, and the testing in the future days are going to be something to be watched for her and other members on Capitol Hill.
DETROW: Mara, obviously, Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell and the White House have an enormous vested interest in keeping this Supreme Court nomination on the fastest track possible. But, I mean, I wonder - when would reality collide with their aspirations if more than Mike Lee ends up testing positive on Capitol Hill?
LIASSON: Yeah, I think you'd have to have a lot of people on the committee testing positive and being symptomatic. You'd have to maybe have the judge herself be sick. I don't see anything right now that would stop them from forging ahead.
DETROW: And back on the campaign side, we should mention an important member of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Kamala Harris - of course, the vice presidential nominee - has tested negative for coronavirus. She was not anywhere near the debate, but the campaign did that just in case. She is continuing with her campaign schedule. Just want to put that out there as well.
All right. We're going to take one more quick break. And when we come back, we will talk about another big coronavirus-related thing happening on Capitol Hill, and that is the status of that next round of financial relief, which has just been tied up for months now.
All right, we're back. And, Claudia, that other congressional coronavirus thing - the long-stalled relief package - any chance it becomes unstalled?
GRISALES: It is a possibility. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said today to the airlines - they're in the midst of cutting tens of thousands of jobs right now - that they are furiously working away to try and reach a deal. So it's a possibility. On the other hand, we are still hearing how far apart they are. For example, she sent a letter to her Democratic colleagues just moments ago laying out the areas where they're far apart. This includes the unemployment insurance benefits, funding for schools, state and local funding and testing and tracing, other appropriations. So it's a long list.
And we did see a flurry of activity this past week. We saw Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on the Hill and other White House officials trying to revive these talks. And so it's possible they could reach some sort of consensus in the coming days or weeks. But, again, it's very hard to see whether that will happen for sure or not.
DETROW: Mara, Nancy Pelosi - I think throughout this entire session of Congress - has really walked that line of taking big, risky stands but then knowing when it's time to cut a deal, sometimes to the deep frustration of members of her caucus. What do you make of the fact that she has been so hard line on this all summer, into the fall?
LIASSON: Well, she seems to believe that if she holds out, the other side will come to her. The other side doesn't just mean the Republicans on Capitol Hill. Donald Trump, you would think, really needs a deal. He needs maybe more individual relief checks to go out to people. He needs to be able to tell people a month before the election that he helped them, that when their unemployment insurance ran out, he replenished it, and he helped save thousands of small businesses.
So what mystifies me is why Trump himself - who has said in the past that he wants a deal, that he's willing to spend more money than the Republicans were willing to settle for - why he hasn't sent the signal to Pelosi that, yes, let's get this done. She - you know, on her side, she's got a lot of moderate Democrats in districts that are considered swing districts that need to show their constituents that they've done something for them. So she is an expert at this. She is - reportedly has a very canny sense of timing. She clearly thinks the other side is going to cry uncle first. But I'm still mystified as to how the United States government has not been able to send out more relief to people who are hurting.
DETROW: Claudia, the president's emissary on Capitol Hill all along on this stuff has been the Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin. What is the latest signaling from him on this?
GRISALES: Well, he's expressed some openness to try and reach a deal with the speaker. As I mentioned earlier, they have been meeting again on Capitol Hill, talking on the phone more frequently. However, it comes down to numbers, and they remain far apart. Republicans don't want to go over $2 trillion. Democrats have come down to $2.2 trillion.
This was how much their new HEROES Act - they revised it; they brought it down from over $3 trillion down to this new figure of $2.2 trillion. But Republicans still have shown they don't have much of an appetite to hit that $2 trillion mark. Can they bridge that gap? That's what remains to be seen. And that's where Mnuchin has left a little bit of an open door, and we're still not clear if they're willing to go that far.
DETROW: What should we look for next?
LIASSON: You know, what's next is the American people are hurting, and they look to the federal government for help. This is a crisis. This is exactly what the federal government is supposed to do. And, you know, I think it's going to reflect poorly on everybody - the House...
LIASSON: ...The Senate and the president - if they can't get this done.
DETROW: All right, that is a wrap for today. To be honest, guys, the entire week - this entire last day has been an enormous Can't Let It Go, so I think we'll just kind of stick to that right now. But we will be posting - I'll be posting my other Can't Let It Gos in our POLITICS PODCAST Facebook group. You can join at n.pr/politicsgroup. It's a tricky URL. I always say it wrong at first and have to redo it, so I'll say it again - n.pr/politicsgroup.
Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel; our producers, Barton Girdwood and Chloee Weiner. Thanks to Lexie Schapitl, Elena Moore, Dana Farrington and Brandon Carter. Special thanks to Brent Baughman, our OG POLITICS PODCAST producer who came back and helped us get that special episode out this morning. Our intern is Kalyani Saxena. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the presidential campaign.
GRISALES: I'm Claudia Grisales. I cover Congress.
LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.
DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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