What to Know in Washington: Trump Fights White House Outbreak

President Donald Trump faces a tricky proposition this week as he tries to convince Americans it’s safe to return to work and social life while combating a coronavirus scare moving closer than ever to his own office.

Vice President Mike Pence has been self-isolating from the White House following his press secretary Katie Miller’s diagnosis of Covid-19 on Friday, said three people familiar with the situation. A spokesman said he’d be back at the White House on Monday.

Miller’s infection brought the virus into Trump’s inner circle, as she’s married to one of his closest advisers, Stephen Miller, known best as the architect of much of his immigration crackdown.

Pence didn’t attend a meeting at the White House on Saturday with Trump and top military officials. Neither did two members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who’ve had their own brushes with coronavirus, Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday and the chief of the National Guard Bureau, Air Force General Joseph Lengyel.

Gilday has had contact with an infected family member. Lengyel tested positive on Saturday, and later tested negative, a Defense Department spokesman said. He’ll be tested again on Monday.

A rapid-test screening at the White House ahead of Trump’s meeting with military leaders in the Cabinet Room caught Lengyel’s positive status, one person familiar with the matter said.

Trump has ratcheted up his efforts to urge Americans to reopen businesses and resume a more normal social life, as widespread social distancing practices continue to exact unprecedented damage on the U.S. economy — once his favorite argument for re-election.

Trump and administration officials will hold a press conference at 4 p.m. today to discuss testing efforts. Read more from Jennifer Jacobs.

White House Looks Abroad for Reopening Ideas: The Trump administration has cited success stories in South Korea and Austria as it calls for Americans to return to work — but those countries moved faster than the U.S. to combat the pandemic and have been more cautious in reopening their economies. And a third country U.S. officials once regarded as a model, Singapore, is now struggling with a resurgence of the outbreak.

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett have said in the past two weeks that the Trump administration is monitoring those three nations as it plans for the U.S. to reopen. But they offer flawed comparisons at best, given the much larger size of the U.S. and its outbreak, as well as measures taken to curb the virus. Read more from Josh Wingrove, Boris Groendahl and Kanga Kong.

Sen. Alexander, Health Chiefs to Self Quarantine: Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) will self-quarantine in Tennessee for 14 days after a staff member tested positive for Covid-19, his chief of staff David Cleary said in a statement. The staffer tested positive yesterday, and Alexander last tested negative May 7. Alexander has no symptoms.

Alexander, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, is due to lead the panel’s virtual hearing tomorrow on the virus response, which includes testimony from National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield.

Redfield and FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn are also now quarantining after coming into contact with the White House staff member who tested positive for the coronavirus. Fauci will start a “modified quarantine,” during which he’ll primarily work from home and wear a mask continually for 14 days, he told CNN on Saturday, Jennifer A. Dlouhy reports.

Economic Actions & Industry Pains

GOP Finds Deficit-Scold Voice Again: The flood of pandemic-relief spending from Washington has rekindled deficit concerns among Republican lawmakers, one of several hurdles facing the next round of stimulus many economists say is needed to pull the U.S. out of its downward spiral. After backing almost $3 trillion to offset the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republicans now have begun raising alarms about the deficit and characterizing a new relief package as an if, not when, proposition.

Trump is also tapping the brakes on the idea of swift action on any new aid package, saying he’s in “no rush” for a new stimulus even after Friday’s Labor Department report showing an unprecedented 20 million jobs were lost in April.

With Democrats pressing for another package of relief that will likely carry a trillion-dollar price tag, Republicans like Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) are already contemplating how to stem the red ink that’s pushed 2020 deficit projection to almost $4 trillion from $1 trillion at the start of the year. “We’ve got to figure out now how we’re going to pay for it,” Scott said in an interview. Otherwise, “we’re going to ruin this economy.” Read more from Steven T. Dennis.

Trump’s Economic Team Braces for Worsening Market: Trump’s economic advisers yesterday argued that a “safe” reopening of the U.S. is the needed urgently as they stare down the worst job numbers since the Great Depression. Meanwhile, although Trump has said he’s in no rush to enact another round of economic stimulus, the economic team said informal discussions are under way with members of Congress and others. The April U.S. jobless rate, released Friday, tripled to 14.7%, the highest since the 1930s. And it’s only set to worsen in May as job cuts spread further into white-collar work. Read more from Jennifer A. Dlouhy, Steve Geimann and Michael Riley.

The Reshaping of American Consumer Begins: Consumers drive 70% of U.S. gross domestic product and they’ve been dealt multiple blows. For some it’s a direct hit to their bank account. For others it’s a shot to their psyches as earners, spenders and social animals. There will doubtlessly be cheerleading from elected officials and business leaders as restrictions are slowly lifted. Already there’s talk of pent-up demand as consumers dream about getting out of the house for more than groceries and prescriptions.

That may be true in some areas, like health care services, where important but non-urgent physician visits and medical procedures were postponed. More broadly, the reality is likely to be disappointing. Read more from Christopher Condon.

Mad Dash for Small-Business Loans Slows Down: The pace of processing loans from a popular coronavirus relief program for U.S. small businesses has slowed abruptly, allaying initial concerns that a second round of funding would be exhausted in a matter of days. The initial $349 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program ran out in 13 days, finishing at a clip of more than $30 billion per weekday. The additional $310 billion for the initiative, relaunched on April 27, reached $175.7 billion in approvals in five days, but the Small Business Administration has reported only $11 billion processed since then — a daily pace of $2.3 billion.

The slowdown has raised a fresh question: Why? Groups representing small businesses and lenders pointed to several possible factors, including the processing of a backlog of applications from the first round; the removal of duplicates from borrowers who applied at more than one bank; and the wariness of some firms applying after the Trump administration warned that companies that take loans and don’t need them could face criminal prosecution. Read more from Mark Niquette, Zachary R. Mider and Hannah Levitt.

‘Food Box’ Program to Ramp Up, Trump Says: Trump said in a tweet Saturday that the country will start buying up to $3 billion in surplus dairy products, meat and fresh produce from U.S. farmers starting next week. The program is part of the $2 trillion aid package passed by Congress in March and signed by Trump to support the economy during the pandemic. Read more from Mario Jose Valero.

Research, Treatment & Testing

What We Don’t Know About the Virus: The best minds in virology are trying to unravel a mystery: How did a lethal coronavirus jump from the wilds of rural China to major human population centers? And what chain of genetic mutations produced a pathogen so perfectly adapted for stealth and mass transmission? Deciphering the creation story of SARS-CoV-2, as the virus rampaging around the globe is known, is a crucial step toward arresting a pandemic that’s killed 270,000-plus and triggered what could be the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression.

While crash vaccine programs are underway in the U.S., Europe and China, an inoculation to ward off the virus may not be ready for months, and the jury’s out on possible treatments. In the meantime, to reduce the risk of deadly secondary outbreaks or the emergence of an entirely new strain, disease chasers need to retrace the pathogen’s journey around the globe. That means heading back to China, where it all began sometime in 2019. Read more from Jason Gale, Robert Langreth and John Lauerman.

Majority Black Counties See Triple the Covid Death Rate: It has become increasingly clear that black Americans are dying at alarmingly high rates of Covid-19. But absent national statistics, the picture remains incomplete. Piecemeal data trickling out of cities and states have shown disproportionate death rates among African Americans, with an analysis of available state-provided figures by APM Research Lab putting the black death rate at 2.6 times higher than that of whites. Read more from Jeff Green and Jackie Gu.

Quidel’s Antigen Test Approved: The Food and Drug Administration approved a new antigen test that could help rapidly screen people infected with Covid-19. The emergency use authorization, the first ever for a Covid-19 antigen test, was granted late Friday to San Diego-based Quidel, the company and the FDA said. The move could be a breakthrough in screening for the coronavirus, coming as state and local governments ease their lockdown orders and businesses begin reopening across the U.S. Health professionals argue that swift screening is key to temper new outbreaks. Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Katerina Petroff have more.

Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb yesterday called the new Quidel test a “game changer.” He told CBS yesterday that each test will probably cost about $5, with results available within minutes. Gottlieb, now a special partner at New Enterprise Associates, a venture capital firm that invests in the health-care and biotech sectors, said “doctors now have about 40,000 of these Sophia machines already installed in their offices” where they’re used to test for strep throat and flu. Read more from Dlouhy.

U.S. Ships Remdesivir to States: The federal government is sending Gilead Science’s remdesivir to Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan and New Jersey after doctors raised questions about the federal allocation of the drug to treat patients. State health agencies, rather than the federal government, will distribute doses to the hospitals, the Health and Human Services Department said Saturday. Illinois and New Jersey each get more than 100 cases. Read more from Steve Geimann.

U.S. Airlines Endorse Fever Checks: Airlines for America, the trade group representing large airlines, said it would support fever checks for passengers and employees carried out by the Transportation Security Administration. The TSA and airlines have been in talks about starting fever checks, though no decision has been announced by the agency. In a statement on Saturday, the airline group, whose members have been hard-hit by declining ticket sales, said the checks would “add an extra layer of of protection for passengers as well as airline and airport employees.” Read more from Hailey Waller.

Elections, Politics & Policy

Obama Calls Trump’s Response ‘Chaotic Disaster’: Former President Barack Obama delivered a blistering attack on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, calling it “an absolute chaotic disaster” as well as “anemic.” Obama’s remarks, first reported by Yahoo News, came in a leaked call as the former president exhorted members of his administration to rally behind presumptive 2020 Democratic nominee Joe Biden. The comments were perhaps the most scathing criticism Obama has yet delivered of his successor in the White House. Read more from Jennifer A. Dlouhy.

Tax Returns Put SCOTUS in Political Storm: The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear what could become the biggest cases involving Trump as president, a pair of constitutional clashes that could insulate chief executives from investigations while in office and add an explosive new element to the 2020 campaign trail. Trump is trying to keep House Democrats and a New York prosecutor from seeing his financial records. The high court will hear back-to-back arguments tomorrow, by phone and live-streamed, on Trump’s efforts to block his banks and accountants from complying with subpoenas they have received. Read more from Greg Stohr.

Mail-In Election Could Trigger Chaos, Disputes: The pandemic-inspired moves toward the first mostly mail-in election in November may solve the public health issue, but the change will likely trigger problems that will reverberate long after Election Day. With tens of millions of Americans expected to mail in their ballots for the Nov. 3 general election amid a tangle of state laws, the country may not know whether Trump or Biden won for days, even weeks. And during those weeks, there will likely be charges of cheating, lawsuits and demands for recounts in a country that prides itself on open, fair and efficient elections. Read more from Ryan Teague Beckwith.

What Else to Know

Former DOJ Official Says Barr ‘Twisted’ Her Words: A former career Justice Department official said Attorney General William Barr misused her statements to justify the department’s decision to drop the criminal case against Michael Flynn. Mary B. McCord, the Justice Department official overseeing the early stages of the Russia investigation, said in a New York Times opinion piece that the motion to dismiss the charges relied heavily on her account of events leading to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s interview of Flynn in January 2017. Read more from Michael Riley.

Meanwhile, House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said in a letter Democrats on the panel are calling for the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate what they claim is Barr’s “politicization” of the department.

Financial Watchdog’s Conflicted Task Force Earning Top Dollar: A Consumer Financial Protection Bureau task force that has been criticized in the past for its pro-business leanings stands to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars to offer advice on how to “harmonize and modernize” federal laws aimed at protecting the public. Read more from Lydia Beyoud and Evan Weinberger.

Mass Shootings in U.S. Plunge: Forcing people in the U.S. to shelter at home during the coronavirus outbreak may have resulted in less death from Covid-19 infections but also much fewer victims of mass shootings. The number of mass shootings in the U.S. plunged 24% in April from a year earlier as churches, malls, restaurants, schools and parks were shuttered and most businesses closed, according to a Bloomberg News analysis of data. Chris Dolmetsch has more.

To contact the reporters on this story: Zachary Sherwood in Washington at zsherwood@bgov.com; Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com