Trump team fiercely debates how long coronavirus restrictions should stay in place
A high-stakes debate is playing out among key figures in President Trump’s orbit over how quickly to loosen restrictions meant to combat the coronavirus.
A number of people around Trump have pushed for prioritizing the economy and sending people back to work as quickly as possible, particularly in less afflicted areas.
But Trump’s own public health officials and some of his allies on Capitol Hill have warned against risking higher infection rates and deaths for the sake of boosting the economy in the short term.
Sources close to the Trump administration described a “split” in the larger Trump World where some people around the president believe the federal government should ease recommendations on social distancing after the 15-day period while others favor waiting a few more weeks or taking even more dramatic action to stamp out the spread of the virus.
“I think there’s a recognition that there needs to be some sort of medium between listening to the doctors and listening to other experts as well,” the person said. “There really isn’t a perfect answer.”
There were more than 41,500 confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. as of Monday afternoon, a large percentage of them concentrated in New York. More than 500 people in the U.S. had died of the disease. The pandemic has resulted in unforeseen businesses closures and massive layoffs across the country.
On Monday, the camp in favor of kick-starting the economy as quickly as possible seemed to be winning out. Trump, apparently spurred on by commentary from Fox News host Steve Hilton, tweeted overnight that “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself” and retweeted several supporters on Monday calling for Americans to get back to work.
Advisers and prominent commentators in conservative media lined up to voice concerns that the economic costs of maintaining restrictions had to be taken into consideration.
“In one week we need to be heading back to work, school, stores, restaurants and churches with new protocols in place,” Fox News host Laura Ingraham tweeted. “The risk if we don’t is that we lose far more in terms of death, pain and suffering than this pandemic will bring.”
Larry Kudlow, the White House’s top economic adviser, said the administration was discussing possible economic remedies and acknowledged “we’re going to have to make some difficult tradeoffs.”
“We can’t shut in the economy,” he said on Fox News. “The economic cost to individuals is just too great.”
Asked Monday whether the administration was considering relaxing the guidelines to stimulate the economy, Vice President Pence told reporters that the coronavirus task force would evaluate ways to potentially “adjust” the guidance after the 15-day period.
“At the end of this 15 days, we’re going to get with our health experts, we’re going to evaluate ways in which we might be able to adjust that guidance for the American people,” Pence told reporters after a teleconference with governors at FEMA headquarters. “We’ll look at where we are and we’ll evaluate based on our health experts, what steps might be possible.”
The White House has bolstered its team of economic advisers amid the pandemic, bringing on Kevin Hassett, Trump’s former chief economist, as a temporary adviser. Hassett last week suggested on CNN that the U.S. may have to consider sending Americans back to work at a certain point even if the pandemic hasn’t abated to avoid a Great Depression-like event.
Trump also tapped Joseph Lavorgna, former chief economist for the Americas for Natixis, to a position on the White House National Economic Council where he will be responsible in part for studying the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak on the economy.
Social distancing policies put in place by local governments and backed by the federal government are intended to slow the virus’s spread. This is seen as vitally important to prevent hospitals from being over-crowded with coronavirus victims. Fears about supply shortages in masks or ventilators have been widely reported.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been one of the most prominent members of the coronavirus task force who has advocated for drastic measures to stem the outbreak. He said Friday that Americans would likely need to stay home for several more weeks to blunt the spread of the virus.
“If you look at the trajectory of the curves of outbreaks in other areas, it’s at least going to be several weeks,” Fauci told NBC News. “I cannot see that all of a sudden next week or two weeks from now it’s going to be over. I don’t think there’s a chance of that.”
At the same time, the economic harm caused by the coronavirus and the shutting down of the economy is leading to deep fears about millions of job losses. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told GOP senators last week that it was possible unemployment could hit 20 percent, though he later backtracked somewhat by saying he was not offering a prediction.
Trump one week ago detailed recommendations urging Americans nationwide to avoid restaurants and bars, limit gatherings to 10 people or fewer and cancel nonessential travel for 15 days. The measures came as a handful of states and localities ordered schools and eating establishments to be closed and large events to be canceled. The federal government has ramped up testing for the virus in the days since, and the number of domestic cases have skyrocketed from a few thousand to more than 40,000.
Surgeon General Jerome Adams on Monday warned that not enough Americans were taking the guidance seriously.
Some argue that by loosening the social distancing recommendations sometime soon after the 15-day mark, the federal government would be allowing people, particularly in parts of the country that aren’t seeing large numbers of cases, to begin returning to normal life.
One source close to the administration argued that the decision shouldn’t be left entirely up to the public health officials because they are not experts on the economic effects of the virus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday is expected to unveil new guidance for people working in critical infrastructure sectors, including first responders, which will help people who have been exposed return to work more quickly by wearing masks.
But some of Trump’s staunchest allies have cautioned against the public health risks of ignoring experts and shaking off social distancing recommendations before the virus is contained.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Monday that he would urge the White House to follow the advice of Fauci and other medical experts and insisted that continuing with mitigation measures should be the priority to avoid overrun hospitals and catastrophic consequences.
“There is no functioning economy unless we control the virus,” Graham said.
Steve Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, advocated on Sunday for an aggressive national shutdown to blunt the spread of the virus, “take the pain up front,” and hopefully shorten the amount of time businesses remain closed.
A similar debate is playing out across the country as governors who are imposing shelter-in-place advisories and ordering nonessential businesses to close are mulling how to keep their state economies from collapsing entirely.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who has emerged as the most visible Democrat leading the charge against the virus, told reporters at a news conference on Monday that he is already trying to plan for how to best wind down restrictions on workers.
“You have to walk and chew gum in life,” Cuomo said.
One consideration, he said, is that young people who are less vulnerable to the virus could return to their jobs sooner than other populations.
But Cuomo has been consistent in warning constituents that restrictions meant to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus could be in place for the foreseeable future, predicting last week that New York would see the peak of the virus in 45 days.
Trump, with an eye on November, may be less inclined to wait out the virus while the economy contracts and unemployment skyrockets.
“The economic future of America is always going to be right toward the front of a president’s decision-making,” one former Trump adviser said. “But in this case if we take the big, bold, dramatic action now, then we’ll put ourselves on course to have a nice rebound in advance of the fall. If we just try to flatten the curve, that’s just going to prolong the national pain.”
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.