By Associated Press
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Monday his administration will ask Congress to pass payroll tax relief and other quick measures as a public health and economic maelstrom brought on by the coronavirus drew closer to him personally.
Intending to calm the fears of financial markets over the impact of the epidemic, Trump told reporters he is seeking “very substantial relief” to the payroll tax. Trump also said he was seeking help for hourly-wage workers to ensure they’re “not going to miss a paycheck” and “don’t get penalized for something that’s not their fault.”
He stepped forward with the contours of an initiative after markets dropped sharply and as the outbreak spread. Several Trump confidants in Congress disclosed they were isolating themselves after potential exposure to the virus; one traveled with the president from Florida on Air Force One on Monday.
Trump said he would hold a press conference Tuesday to outline the proposals, saying his administration and Congress would be “discussing a possible payroll tax cut or relief, substantial relief, very substantial relief, that’s big, that’s a big number. We’re also going to be talking about hourly wage earners getting help so that they can be in a position where they’re not going to ever miss a paycheck.”
As Trump grappled with an epidemic whose consequences he has repeatedly played down, the White House asserted it was conducting “business as usual.” But the day’s business was anything but normal. Lawmakers pressed for details on how the Capitol could be made secure, handshakes on the Hill were discouraged and a Pentagon meeting was broken into sub-groups to minimize the number of people in the same room.
The president himself dove into handshakes with supporters earlier in the day, when arriving to headline a fundraiser in Longwood, Florida, that raised approximately $4 million for his reelection campaign and the Republican Party.
On his flight back to Washington he was accompanied by Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who later went into a voluntary quarantine. He was one of several GOP lawmakers who were exposed to a person at last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference who tested positive for the virus. His office said he was “mid-flight” on Air Force One when CPAC informed his staff that he had been in contact with the attendee who had the virus.
Once the plane landed, Gaetz was immediately tested.
Vice President Mike Pence, who also spoke at CPAC, said he has not been tested for the virus. He said he did not know whether Trump had been tested.
In Monday morning tweets, Trump vented about the market drop and news that large public gatherings were being called off because of the virus.
“At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths,” Trump tweeted, comparing it to seasonal influenza and the thousands of deaths that causes. “Think about that!”
Scientists at this stage don’t know what the death rate of the new coronavirus actually is and whether it will wind up being about the same as flu or worse.
At the same time, administration officials were insistent that they weren’t trying to dismiss public concerns. “This is a very serious health problem,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told Fox News.
At the Pentagon, officials have begun “social distancing” measures.
On Monday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s regular meeting with senior staff, which normally would be held face-to-face in a single room with 40 to 50 participants, was broken up into three rooms, with video-teleconferencing among the rooms, according to the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman. He said Esper and the 15 to 20 people in his room, including Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sat at least six feet apart, in line with health guidance.
Trump was delegating much of the virus response to Pence, who convened a video teleconference to give an update on the federal government’s virus response Monday afternoon with the nation’s governors. Trump met his top economic advisers before emerging to disclose he’ll seek the payroll tax break.
The White House has been convening meetings with an array of travel and healthcare industry representatives, and was set to host Wall Street executives at the White House on Wednesday to discuss the economic fallout of the epidemic.
Futures in the S&P 500 index, which can indicate how Wall Street will open Tuesday, were up more than 2.5% late Monday after the administration’s news conference.
On Capitol Hill, where many lawmakers are older and have frequent contact with the public, leaders were fielding questions from members and staff about how the complex will be secured. Leaders have so far shown little willingness to close the Capitol, but meetings were scheduled throughout the day to discuss preparations.