- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 3, 2020

President Trump said Sunday night that he received his first intelligence briefing on the coronavirus on Jan. 23 and that his advisers told him it was “not a big deal.”

“I was told there could be a virus coming in, but it was of no real import,” Mr. Trump said in a virtual town hall meeting hosted by Fox News Channel at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. “It was a brief conversation. They said it very matter-of-factly. It was not a big deal.”

Critics have accused Mr. Trump of being slow to recognize the dangers of the COVID-19 outbreak, which began in China late last year and now has killed more than 66,000 Americans. Media reports have said Mr. Trump was told Jan. 23 that the virus would “spread globally.”

Democrats are making a campaign issue out of the president’s handling of the pandemic, saying he acted too slowly. Mr. Trump said more than 1 million people could have died in the U.S. if he hadn’t take the actions he did.

The president noted that he closed air travel from China on Jan. 31, except for U.S. citizens returning from that country. He said the White House will release the details of his intelligence briefings on the virus Monday.

Mr. Trump fielded questions submitted by people across the country on video, many of them focused on how to return to work and school safely.

The president said he will push for colleges and universities to reopen for the fall semester in September, saying “I want them to go back.”

Mr. Trump also predicted that the U.S. will have a vaccine “by the end of the year.”

The president softened his recent rhetoric that Chinese officials might have allowed the virus to spread intentionally. But he said an upcoming U.S. intelligence report will make clear that Beijing deliberately deceived the world about the danger.

“I don’t think there’s any question. I think it [report] will be very conclusive,” Mr. Trump said. “I think they made a horrible mistake. They tried to cover it [up]. They couldn’t put out the fire. I think they were embarrassed by the problem.”

And the president laid down a marker in negotiations with Democrats on the next round of emergency economic aid, this time for states. He vowed, “We’re not doing anything unless we get a payroll tax cut.”

Asked what he’s told his teenage son Barron and his grandchildren about the pandemic, Mr. Trump replied, “I said a terrible thing has happened … but we’re going to be strong, and we’re going to get out of it, and our country is going to be bigger and better and stronger than ever before.”

Governors are deciding when to reopen nonessential businesses in their states, facing demonstrations from people who need paychecks and also hearing concerns of people fearing a second wave of infections if they reopen too quickly.

“I think you can really have it both ways,” the president said. “Every day you see demonstrations all over the country. Those are meaningful demonstrations. But you also have some people that are very scared. If you’re scared, you’re going to stay back a little bit and you’re going to watch it.”

He added, “People are absolutely scared, but there are other people that are scared about being locked in a room and losing their job and not having any income. These are people that want to get back to work and make a living, and they’re afraid that jobs aren’t going to be there.”

The president also hit back at some of his favorite Democratic targets: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee. He said Ms. Whitmer didn’t raise any concerns in a phone call with the White House on Friday but complained about the administration’s response on a Sunday TV show.

“She ought to get back to running her state properly,” the president said.

He said Mr. Inslee “didn’t do a very good job on nursing homes, as far as I’m concerned.” Washington was the first state hit hard by the outbreak, including a wave of deaths at nursing homes.

A Democratic super PAC aired attack ads on Fox in key swing states around the town-hall event, criticizing the president’s response to the pandemic. The 30-second spot in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin accused Mr. Trump of being too slow to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Donald Trump’s lost time cost lives,” declared the ad, funded by American Bridge.

The coronavirus crisis and resulting stay-at-home orders by most governors have thrown more than 30 million Americans out of work in just six weeks. The federal government’s response has cost taxpayers $3 trillion and counting.

The unemployment rate, which was at a historically low 3.5% in February, is expected to climb near 20% for April — a collapse of the labor market not seen since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

At least 38 states have eased restrictions on businesses in recent days, and six more will follow on Monday and Tuesday. Protesters have been gathering in state capitals to demand quicker action from governors to let people return to work.

White House coronavirus coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said Sunday that it is “devastatingly worrisome” to see protesters in Michigan and other states not wearing masks or practicing social distancing. She said people “will feel guilty for the rest of our lives” if they become infected and unintentionally spread the virus to vulnerable family members.

“We need to protect each other at the same time we’re voicing our discontent,” she said on “Fox News Sunday.”

The president is planning to venture outside Washington for the first time since March 28, when he visited Norfolk, Virginia, to send off the Navy hospital ship USS Comfort to New York City.

Mr. Trump will travel Tuesday to a Honeywell aerospace facility in Phoenix that is expanding production of N95 respirator masks for health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, said White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere.

“The visit will highlight Honeywell’s investment in critical medical equipment production within the United States and the addition of 500 manufacturing jobs in Arizona,” Mr. Deere said. “President Trump and his administration, and the coronavirus task force continue to lead the fight for Arizona and the country against this invisible enemy.”

Arizona is also a battleground in the presidential race. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden leads Mr. Trump by 4 percentage points in the Real Clear Politics average of polls. Republican Sen. Martha McSally is in a close race with retired astronaut Mark Kelly, husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Mr. Trump said he doesn’t think the election will be a referendum on his handling of the crisis. He said he hopes to return to jam-packed campaign rallies “in the last couple of months” of the race.

“My ambition is to very quickly get us back to where we were,” he said of the U.S. economy. “I think we can do that very quickly — not if a Democrat comes in and raises taxes.”

The president also said he plans to travel soon to Ohio, another state crucial to his reelection campaign. He is expected to travel June 13 to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to deliver the commencement address.

Asked about criticism that cadets and their families shouldn’t travel to West Point, Mr. Trump said, “There’s no risk. They wanted me to speak. The generals asked me to please do it. I didn’t want to speak. It’s my honor to speak. I said I want their families to be there.”

Conservative economist and Trump ally Stephen Moore and the advocacy group FreedomWorks plan to issue a joint report Monday grading all 50 governors on opening their states’ economies.

“The states with governors who are opening up their economies now — quickly and safely — are going to have much swifter economic recoveries and less poverty than governors in the Northeast and Midwest with plans to keep their businesses and public places shut down for many more weeks to come,” Mr. Moore said.

Among the governors who get high marks in the study for “protecting their economies from devastation” are Republicans Ron DeSantis of Florida, Brian Kemp of Georgia, Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, Kristi Noem of South Dakota, Bill Lee of Tennessee, Greg Abbott of Texas and Mark Gordon of Wyoming, and Democrat Jared Polis of Colorado.

Governors receiving lower grades for putting their states’ “in most economic peril” are Democrats Phil Murphy of New Jersey, Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania, Ralph Northam of Virginia, Tony Evers of Wisconsin, Gavin Newsom of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York.

The study says the “worst performing” Republican governor is Larry Hogan of Maryland.

Mr. Murphy, whose state has had more than 7,700 deaths from COVID-19, said an “overwhelming” number of New Jersey residents believe he is taking the right approach.

“We’ve got to make our decisions based on the science, the data, the facts,” Mr. Murphy said on “Fox News Sunday.” “And they all suggest … we’re not out of this yet.”

The Senate will reconvene Monday, but Democrats and Republicans are at odds about another round of emergency relief to ease the effects of the economic collapse. Mr. Trump has said he wants to “pause” fiscal rescue efforts but has called for a payroll tax cut for workers and a ban on federal aid to states and cities that serve as sanctuaries for illegal immigrants.

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Sunday that the administration wants to see how the $3 trillion in aid already approved helps families and businesses. He made a point on CNN’s “State of the Union” of saying that “I don’t think anything’s been decided yet” on Mr. Trump’s push for a ban on aid to sanctuary states.

But Mr. Kudlow wondered about another round of aid. He noted that the Small Business Administration approved loans and grants of more than $175 billion last week for the Paycheck Protection Program, bringing the total of that emergency aid to more than $500 billion.

He said “175 million Americans have received federal assistance … but we also want to look at some medium-term items.”

He mentioned a payroll tax holiday for workers, “significant” tax deductions for business and entertainment, a full tax write-off of new business expenses for anything related to COVID-19 and a shield to protect small businesses from liability if someone is exposed to the virus and files a lawsuit.

“Now it’s time to look forward to economic growth incentives,” Mr. Kudlow said.

Governors are seeking a massive amount of state aid from Washington. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, has floated a proposal of $1 trillion for states and cities.

Mr. Hogan, also appearing on “State of the Union,” said the message from the White House on state aid “seems to sort of change almost on a daily [basis], sometimes several times a day.”

“I think we are going to need more help,” Mr. Hogan said. “The president, vice president and [Treasury] Secretary [Steven T.] Mnuchin have already committed to it multiple times. And now the message seems to be changing. I’m hoping we can put aside all this kind of divisiveness and partisanship because we just have to get this done for the American people.”

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