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Update: White House Response To Coronavirus Crisis


It's been a weekend of action at the White House. They declared the coronavirus a crisis and a major disaster, signing off on a deal with House Democrats to offer sick leave, unemployment aid and food assistance. But also, they announced a website that wasn't ready, and they have been unclear about testing the president.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now. Good morning, Mara.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's start with the government's response. We heard there quite a bit of criticism so far. We've got $50 billion, though, freed up through this disaster declaration and the congressional package. Talk about those two things.

LIASSON: Well, the first thing is the Stafford Act. That's the emergency money. The president now can spend - is now authorized to spend money give aid to states and local governments. That's about $50 billion. The aid package passed by the House and supported by the president - it still has to be passed by the Senate - gives tens of billions of dollars in aid depending on - the exact number depends on how much is accessed. That's in the form of new benefits to small businesses, about 10 days of paid sick leave during the crisis to employees of some companies - for some reason, it doesn't apply to companies with 500 employees or more, and that's more than half of all workers - also free testing and more money for Medicare and unemployment insurance.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mara, the president said he finally did get tested for the coronavirus Friday night. And the test came back negative, they said. But that was after weeks of shaking hands, coming into contact with people confirmed to be infected. It seemed, to many, to be very cavalier.

LIASSON: Well, he has changed his attitude. At first, he seemed to dismiss the crisis or worry more about the optics of it than the reality of it. But now he is talking about social distancing; he's just not modeling it. At - on that press conference in the Rose Garden on Friday, he was shaking hands. He was sharing a microphone. But after saying he wouldn't get tested, he did get tested. And his doctor says, at least for now, the president is negative.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Trump talked about his contacts at a briefing yesterday. Let's listen to a little bit of Surgeon General Jerome Adams from the same event.


JEROME ADAMS: I want you all to understand some straight talk from the nation's doctor. We really need you all to lean into and prioritize the health and safety of the American people - no more bickering, no more partisanship, no more criticism or finger-pointing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's your read on that?

LIASSON: Well, it was interesting. When I heard him say that, I thought at first he was talking about President Trump, who has blamed the Obama administration and a foreign virus and the Fed chairman Jay Powell and China and the EU and CNN and Nancy Pelosi for, quote, "trying to create a panic."

But the surgeon general went on to make it very clear he was talking about the press. He said, we want more stories on how people can protect themselves, less stories looking at what happened in the past. And you know, on Friday in the Rose Garden, the president said, quote, "I don't take responsibility at all," when he was asked about why the delays in testing and why his administration dismantled the pandemic response team at the NSC.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And speaking of politics, there's a debate tonight. Right?

LIASSON: There is a debate tonight. The pandemic is already affecting politics. No more big crowds, no more rallies - the debate is in a studio at CNN. We don't know how the pandemic will affect the result of the election. That depends on how Americans judge President Trump's leadership in this crisis, the way they've judged other presidents during other crises.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Mara, thank you very much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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