President Donald Trump sought to soothe the nation’s rising fears over the spread of the coronavirus with an Oval Office address on Wednesday evening. But his speech delivered more uncertainty than reassurance after the markets reacted with strong disapproval and his own agencies and aides rushed to clarify what he had said.
At the heart of the address was an announcement from Trump that he was suspending all travel from Europe into the United States, with an exemption of those coming for the United Kingdom. It was the most drastic step he has taken to date to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
Blaming America’s current difficulties in handling the pandemic on Europe, Trump declared, at one point, “The E.U. failed.”
“Smart action today will prevent the spread of the virus tomorrow,” Trump said, speaking from the Oval Office. “We are at a critical time in the fight against the virus.”
But it was unclear why the U.K. would be exempted as, among other things, its health minister currently has coronavirus. And no sooner had he made the declaration than questions were raised about how sweeping it was.
Following the address, the Department of Homeland Security issued a memo, saying that the president had signed a proclamation that banned entry to foreign nationals who had spent time in particular European countries in the last 14 days. It remained unclear whether the administration was also banning travel for Americans going into Europe as well, though a subsequent memorandum suggested they were not. Trump himself said Americans who had “undergone appropriate screenings” would be allowed to travel to Europe, but there were no details as to what those screenings entailed.
At one point during his speech Trump said the restrictions would “apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo.” But officials in the White House backtracked on that statement, telling reporters that the prohibition was only on individuals transporting goods. The speech also appeared to catch health insurers off guard over claims that they had "agreed to waive all copayments for coronavirus treatments."
In his speech on Wednesday, Trump tried to wave off any idea that the United States was facing economic troubles stemming from the virus even as the Dow Jones, earlier in the day, tumbled into a bear market—more than 20 percent off of its Feb. 12 record high—and as layoffs related to the spread of disease began to register.
“We have the greatest economy anywhere in the world by far,” he said.
Shortly after he spoke, the Dow futures dropped dramatically.
The president did announce additional financial measures to help the downward market spiral. He said he would immediately provide capital and liquidity to firms affected by the coronavirus and would extend loans to states and territories most impacted by the outbreak. The president also called on Congress for immediate payroll tax relief and asked the Treasury Department to defer tax payments for certain individuals and businesses. Among the few policies he unveiled that were directly related to public health was an encouragement for nursing homes for the elderly to suspend all unnecessary visits.
It was, officials say, an inevitable wielding of executive power at this stage of the public health crisis, which the World Health Organization officially declared a pandemic on Wednesday and which began on Wednesday night to upend American society in dramatic ways, with actor Tom Hanks announcing that he had contracted the virus, the National Basketball Association suspending its season after a star player tested positive as well, and a U.S. senator announcing that her aide had the virus.
However, it comes courtesy of a president who has for weeks feverishly tried to delegitimize critics of his administration’s response and to smear media coverage of the pandemic as another “hoax” perpetrated by his political enemies.
Wednesday night’s speech was an attempt by the president and those around him, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner, to ease the fears of the American public who seem to have grown increasingly concerned about the rising number of coronavirus deaths in the country and the mixed messaging from the government over how seriously to take the threat.
The administration has for days discussed several options for containing the spread of the virus, ranging from quarantining more small cities like New Rochelle in New York to banning certain kinds of group gatherings and transportation methods. But senior officials in the administration told The Daily Beast that the White House typically pushed back against severe travel bans or flight cancellations in fear that the move would do more to hurt the economy than help curtail community spread. Scientists and academics on the task force, though, have argued for more restrictive policies in order to ramp up containment. That pushback, those officials said, was based on a concern by the president himself that the stock market would falter into the middle of his 2020 campaign.
For weeks the White House has tried to quell concerns about the outbreak by streamlining communications through Vice President Mike Pence’s office and by classifying Coronavirus Task Force meetings, according to Reuters. Even as the vice president and members of the task force appear most days in front of the press for briefings, the message has not always been uniform when discussing the severity of the situation.
On Wednesday morning, Coronavirus Task Force officials including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Center for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield answered questions in front of a House congressional committee. In the hearing, lawmakers on the House Committee on Government Reform peppered the witnesses about testing capacity, coronavirus case numbers and deaths, and the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic.
Fauci, who spoke more openly and candidly than he has in past task force briefings, and made several points on the coronavirus outbreak that appeared to contradict those made by President Trump himself. Trump has said over the last few days on social media and in public that the American public should not “worry” about the virus spreading, that it was comparable to the season flu, and that it would “go away soon”. But during the hearing Wednesday Fauci said the coronavirus was unlike the seasonal flu given that it was 10 times deadlier. He also said the government needed to be “doing more” on containment, saying if the precautions weren’t taken now, the case numbers could spike into the “millions”.
Facui and other witnesses were pulled away from the congressional briefing for what Fauci said was an “emergency meeting” at the White House. Sources inside the White House told The Daily Beast that Fauci had misspoken and that the meeting had been pre-scheduled. But none of those individuals could point to which meeting was taking place or when it would occur.
By Wednesday night, the task force had canceled its press briefing, telling reporters to watch the president’s speech instead for direction on where the administration was heading in its plans to combat the coronavirus. Reports emerged that Kushner and Stephen Miller were helping Trump craft his speech. Meanwhile, rumors swirled about whether the president would declare a national disaster under the Stafford Act, which would free up tens of billions of dollars in immediate aid. Two officials told The Daily Beast that Trump would announce economic measures the U.S. would take to correct the downward market trend.
Trump’s speech on Wednesday was just the second time he had addressed the nation from the Oval Office. The setting was meant to underscore the magnitude of the moment and the seriousness with which the president is facing it. But much of Trump’s response to date, those around him concede, has been influenced by drama and petty rivalries that he refuses to let go of.
Trump has blamed Democrats for trying to capitalize on the crisis to hurt his presidency and even erroneously accused President Barack Obama of hampering the government’s disaster response preparedness. More recently, negotiations with Congress over an economic recovery package designed to deal with the impact of coronavirus’ spread have been hampered by the president’s resistance to the idea of discussing the matter one-on-one with the Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, with whom he’s repeatedly clashed and feuded.
“At this time, the president does not see it as productive to [personally] negotiate directly with Nancy Pelosi,” said one senior Trump administration official. “For now, it’s best for her to deal directly with Sec. Mnuchin and others in the administration.” This official recounted how the president recently complained about Pelosi and her team’s penchant for, in the president’s words, “immediately leav[ing a private meeting] and go[ing] out there” to leak potentially embarrassing information to the media. And according to those close to him, Trump has privately mused that Pelosi would again try to humiliate him in this way, if he were to grant her a one-on-one meeting on coronavirus and economic options at this time.
For now, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has been deputized as one of the president’s more prominent envoys to Capitol Hill and Democratic leadership.