As the country grapples with the growing number of coronavirus cases and related deaths, President Donald Trump is telling his advisers that he finds the current state of the economy unacceptable and has agitated for yet another controversial course correction.
According to two people who have spoken to the president, Trump has demanded officials put together a plan so that the economic fallout of the public-health emergency does not drag on for even “one month longer,” even as his own health professionals warn that the virus’ spread could last far longer than that.
At a White House coronavirus briefing Monday evening, Trump insisted that he’s looking to open the country again in weeks, not months, even as cases of COVID-19 continue to surge across the nation.
“I’m not looking at months, I can tell you right now,” he declared. “We’re going to be opening up our country, and we’re going to be watching certain areas.”
More than a dozen White House officials, outside advisers, longtime associates of the president, and Trump campaign staffers all described to The Daily Beast a growing sense of urgency in reversing the steep declines in the stock markets—the Dow Jones Industrial Average has dipped below levels when Trump took office—and the impending spike in the unemployment rate. That urgency has been apparent in the president as well, as he has begun pressing informal advisers, TV personalities, and MAGA loyalists outside his administration for their ideas on how to stem economic losses related to the spread of coronavirus, which various economists have projected could be a 30 percent reduction in GDP.
“I had a very serious conversation with [President Trump] and with [top economic adviser] Larry Kudlow and with [Treasury Secretary Steve] Mnuchin as well,” relayed Art Laffer, a longtime conservative economist, who said he had three missed calls from Trump on Thursday night before the two connected. During the phone call, Laffer says he advised the president to back a payroll tax-cut waiver, to guarantee liquidity for successful companies, and that “we should not be bailing out insolvent firms right now. I also advised him against ‘helicopter money.’”
“The president understood exactly what I was saying,” Laffer said.
The change in emphasis illustrates the degree to which Trump continues to view the crises of his presidency—and his own political well being—on short term timelines and through the prism of dollars and cents. It has alarmed health officials, who worry that the administration will abandon measures that have worked in other countries, just as America begins to get into the thick of its own crisis.
Trump’s eagerness to soften the across-the-board health care recommendations that his own coronavirus task force has pushed has been fed by like-minded allies, as well. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who penned a much-discussed oped from Italy warning Americans to take the virus seriously, says that he has “bombarded” White House officials in recent days encouraging them to start putting in place guidelines to encourage economic activity.
“You have to think horizontally as well as vertically. The public health crisis comes in and they think only vertically,” Gingrich told The Daily Beast. “The economists come in and think only vertically. That's not how the world works. You can’t have the economy go into a depression. That’s not a small thing. You go 2-3 months like this and we will actually have a depression.”
Gingrich isn’t the only one who has been eager to shift focus to the economic fallout. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, made similar comments on Monday, as has the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the New York Times’ Tom Friedman, and former Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who, an aide said, “believes it is important we begin thinking now about how to get those other than the elderly and most vulnerable back to work.”
It is increasingly clear that internal administration strategy is heading in that very direction, as well. In remarks to reporters Sunday, President Trump seemed to indicate that he would soon issue guidance on getting Americans back to work. It’s unclear exactly what those guidelines will say, but officials working with the administration’s coronavirus task force said that retail and manufacturing associations are increasingly asking state governments to designate them as “essential businesses” in an effort to get ahead of any announcement.
The idea, those officials said, is for companies to get their employees back to work as soon as possible. Last week, the CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers sent a letter to several governors asking them to support “designating all manufacturing facilities, supply chains and their employees as ‘essential infrastructure’ and ‘essential businesses’ to assure clear, consistent and more uniformly aligned guidance to businesses as our nation responds to the COVID19 pandemic.”
Other industry associations have also reached out to the White House in an attempt to help frame the debate. The U.S. Chamber Foundation—an association in Washington, D.C. that focuses on U.S. business policies—sent a letter to Trump last week, urging caution with quarantines and mandatory business closures.
“It is important that these orders do not inadvertently harm businesses and services that support the essential infrastructure needed to successfully combat this pandemic,” the letter said.
In the press conference Sunday evening, Vice President Mike Pence also said the administration’s coronavirus task force—in coordination with the Center for Disease Control—would issue guidelines on how people who have been exposed to the virus could return to the workforce by wearing protective masks; an idea that medical experts described as a disaster in waiting.
“That is so bad,” said William Haseltine, president of the global health think tank ACCESS Health International, who recently chaired the U.S.-China Health Summit in Wuhan. “If you want to really spread this infection like crazy, that’s what to do. It’s near insanity.”
Even as the Trump administration alters its approach towards emphasizing restorative economic measures, it has continued having difficulties handling the public health component of the crisis. Senior officials on Trump’s own coronavirus task force are scrambling to gather on-the-ground data on how many medical supplies—such as masks, ventilators, and gloves—exist in the national strategic stockpile, which hospitals are running low, and how the country is going to manufacture or import. Two officials working on supply chain issues during the coronavirus outbreak said the interagency effort to collect basic data is disjointed at best.
“A lot of government agencies are passing the buck,” one official said. “There are some side projects going on, but it’s unclear if there really is a whole-of-government approach to getting this information and then reacting to it in a way that the people who need these supplies get them in a timely fashion.”
Officials told The Daily Beast that the administration does not yet have a grasp on supply chain gaps and how to fix the shortages at hospitals let alone the lack of things like toilet paper and hand sanitizer at grocery stories.
Despite the president leaning toward announcing a plan to get Americans back to work, state representatives said they are not yet changing their current guidelines. Those guidelines, which have included stay at home warnings and shuttering of businesses, schools, and social gatherings, has led to dramatic scenes of long lines at grocery stores, ballooning claims for unemployment insurances, and swamped pharmacies. Those, in turn, have compelled right wing media to begin championing the notion that the pain the virus is causing is less severe than the pain being inflicted by the measures to combat it.
Fox News hosts, in particular, have grown restless with social distancing. Host Laura Ingraham tweeted that doctors “should not be the determinative voices in policy making,” while Fox personality Tomi Lahren tweeted that anti-coronavirus measures would be “far more crippling than the virus.”
Challenges to social distancing have grown among right-wing columnists, too. In a Sunday column, former Bob Dole press secretary Douglas MacKinnon even proposed a national vote on whether to “let the COVID-19 run its course.” The virus has been projected to kill as many as 3.4 percent of those infected and hospitals are already warning that they are being overwhelmed by the number of patients they need to treat.
Right-wing personalities have also stepped up their attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who has been one of the most visible faces of the administration’s response. While pro-Trump figures have long touted Fauci’s appearance at Trump’s coronavirus press conferences as proof that the administration is succesfully handling the pandemic, that mood began to shift over the weekend, after Fauci appeared to clutch his face in disappointment during a press conference and gave an interview critical of Trump’s tone at the briefings.
But for all the agitation to refocus the country’s economy, there is one entity that is remaining cautious about the public health crisis at hand. For now, there’s essentially a universal agreement that the Trump re-election campaign mega-rallies that the president adores so much are on an indefinite hold.
“Nobody is trying to predict what the schedule will look like during this difficult time,” a source close to the campaign said. “Everyone is just adjusting to the current environment, whether it’s more phone banking, messaging [and] communications, press relations, polling, videos [and] commercials, advertising, op-eds, and surrogates doing more media hits.”
—With additional reporting by Will Sommer, Olivia Messer, and Hunter Woodall.