An Earnest President Trump Gets Serious

White House Watch discusses the latest moves by President Trump to combat the spread of Covid-19.

[UPDATED 13:00]: President Trump, his breezy rally personality put aside, addressed the nation Wednesday night to lend gravity to the warnings that Americans must urgently prepare for the increasingly serious threat of the dangerous coronavirus, saying he is blocking entry from continental Europe of most foreign nationals while stressing, “This is a temporary moment in time.”

The president’s appearance followed the declaration by the World Health Organization that the virus spread worldwide has indeed become a “pandemic”. 

The address, with its travel ban aimed at entrants from Europe, did nothing to calm overseas markets in overnight US hours, where Asian and then European exchanges saw more steep losses.

Obviously uncomfortable with having to depend on a Teleprompter, Trump switched his advice for those who are sick to “stay home” rather than sticking with what he said a few days ago, to keep going to work.

As he was speaking, actor Tom Hanks, with his wife in Australia shooting a movie, said they have confirmed coronavirus and do not feel too well, underlining the profound threat.

Trump also dropped his claim that everyone who wants to be tested can be. “Testing and testing capabilities are expanding rapidly day by day,” he said.

Numbers published on government websites of tests already performed are even now showing only tiny totals administered. While officials have said vast numbers of testing kits have been produced, there are still challenges in getting them distributed. Until mass testing is accomplished, as has been done in South Korea, the extent of the virus’s spread in the United States cannot begin to be quantified.

The most sweeping action Trump announced was a ban on travelers from continental Europe – not including the United Kingdom – that begins Friday at midnight. The Department of Homeland Security quickly clarified that Americans and permanent residents will still be allowed entry, but not “most” foreign nationals. Some, though, will be exempted depending on origin. The restrictions will last at least 30 days.

In a subsequent tweet, Trump himself clarified that trade in goods should not be affected by travel restrictions after apparently misspeaking in the televised address when he said the prohibitions “will not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo but various other things as we get approval”.

Italy, with the most extensive spread of virus in Europe, has now shut all manufacturing and imposed severe internal travel bans.

Trump added the US is “monitoring the situation in China and in the South Korea and as their situation improves we will reevaluate the restrictions and warnings that are currently in place for a possible early opening”.

Trump made an only oblique reference to the adoption of any social distancing, that is, maintaining a buffer zone around individuals as being done in Italy, and he did not directly recommend an end to any large gatherings anywhere as some experts, including the National Institute of Health’s Anthony Fauci earlier in the day, say should be done immediately.

Fauci also delivered a quote that may have been the day’s most memorable, saying the lethality of COVID-19 is at least 10 times that of ordinary influenza. Considering that the flu killed more than 60,000 Americans two seasons ago, that would calibrate the potential worst-case fatality total for the new virus in the hundreds of thousands.

As for large gatherings, states and localities, school systems and universities as well as entertainment venues are canceling either attendance or entire seasons on their own. The National Basketball Association, soon after Trump spoke, announced it is suspending the rest of the basketball season after a player tested positive. The NCAA has previously announced its March Madness games will be played without fans present.

Trump also did not follow advice to skip blaming others while continuing lavish praise for the US anti-virus performance which subsequent testing may find to have been insufficient.

Because he took “early intense action” by blocking entry from China, “we have seen dramatically fewer cases of the virus in the United States than are now present in Europe,” he claimed. 

“The European Union failed to take the same precautions and restrict travel from China and other hotspots as a result a large number of new clusters in the United States were seeded by travelers from Europe,” he claimed.

Trump stopped short of declaring, as did Fauci, “It will get worse.” He did warn the elderly are at increased risk. “The highest risk is for elderly population with underlying health conditions; the elderly population must be very, very careful,” he said. 

“In particular, we are strongly advising that nursing homes for the elderly suspend all medically unnecessary visits,” he said. “In general, older Americans should also avoid non-essential travel and crowded areas.”

For “all Americans,” he said, “It is essential that everyone take extra precautions and practice good hygiene.”

Much of Trump’s brief statement was devoted to assurances rather than warnings. “For the vast majority of Americans the risk is very, very low. Young and healthy people can expect to recover fully and quickly if they should get the virus.”

Trump, who has continued to blast Democrats in tweets as recently as a few hours previously and he reportedly refuses to meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said that, “We are all in this together. We must put politics aside, stop the partisanship and unify together as one nation and one family.”

He continued, “As history has proven time and time again Americans always rise to the challenge and overcome adversity.”

Trump said he intends to delay the April 15 tax filing deadline for most taxpayers, allowing $200 billion to remain circulating instead of being sent to the government. The Treasury Department, denied that revenue in April, will be forced to borrow that amount instead.

The president earlier in the day met with the heads of major banks who reassured him the banking system is strong, with high levels of capital. 

In his address, Trump said, “This is not a financial crisis. This is just a temporary moment of time that we will overcome together as a nation and as a world.”

He said various economic programs are being implemented through administrative fiat while others are being proposed to Congress, such as adding $50 billion in lending capacity for small- and medium-sized businesses. Both Republicans and Democrats rejected for now his Tuesday suggestion for a payroll tax holiday through the end of the year.

The demand crunch that is already hitting all levels of the travel industry, and that will be exacerbated by the new restrictions on entry from Europe, is spreading like a financial virus, threatening to drastically shrink the cashflow of other businesses large and small. 

Another day of staggering losses for stocks distinguished itself Wednesday by being steep enough to end 11 years of a bull market as the Dow Industrials crossed over into a bear market by dropping 5.86% or 1464.94 points to end at 23,553.22. That was an improvement over where the Dow bottomed out 37 minutes before the close. The losses for other indices were similar.

Denny Gulino

Colin Lambert

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