Huddled with donors at his private Mar-a-Lago Club on Friday, President Trump told supporters that he was intent on protecting the cruise industry from the fallout of the coronavirus crisis — even as top health officials and other key advisers were privately pushing him to keep the public off the ships.
Two days later, the State Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned U.S. citizens, particularly those with medical issues, not to travel by cruise ship, sending the industry into a panic, according to people familiar with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions.
The administration’s whipsawing posture has led to an intensive behind-the-scenes lobbying effort by cruise executives to mitigate the financial fallout from the virus, which has infected passengers and crew members on at least two Carnival-owned Princess Cruise ships.
The coming days will test the clout of the industry, which has long-standing connections to Trump, including through Carnival Corp. chairman Micky Arison, a friend whose company helped sponsor Trump’s reality show franchise “The Apprentice” over the years.
The cruise lines have raced to get ahead of further government action, voluntarily suspending a small number of voyages this week and pitching to the White House a plan to safeguard passengers.
But stock value of cruise companies has plummeted as the industry struggled to deal with the infections on the two ships and warnings from health experts about the risks of such travel.
Trump appears sympathetic and has said he wants to help the cruise lines. At the donor event Friday, the president brought up the industry and said he did not want it to shut it down or for it to suffer job losses, according to three people familiar with his remarks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the closed-door event.
A White House spokesman declined to comment.
Trump echoed that sentiment publicly Monday, saying at a White House news conference that he was concerned that cruise lines and airlines “will be hit.”
“We’re working with them very, very strongly,” he said. “We want them to travel.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Wednesday that the administration was considering emergency assistance for affected industries. “This is not a bailout. This is considering providing certain things for certain industries. Airlines, hotels, cruise lines,” he said.
But at the same time, several top health officials and members of the administration’s coronavirus task force have been pushing for a tougher stance and wanted to impose a temporary ban on Americans going on cruise ships, according to people familiar with the conversations.
They included Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma and Surgeon General Jerome Adams, the people said.
The advisories from the State Department and the CDC were recommended by the White House coronavirus task force, according to an administration official who said Trump and Vice President Pence knew about them in advance.
There has been mounting frustration with the cruise industry’s handling of the crisis among top administration officials, including in the office of Pence, according to people with knowledge of their thinking.
The lack of a clear mitigation plan for ships with outbreaks has forced the government to handle the expensive and complicated logistics of evacuating and quarantining thousands of potentially infected passengers this week aboard the Grand Princess in Oakland, an operation that has drawn in the National Guard and the Defense Department, among other agencies.
On Thursday, Princess Cruises announced that it was voluntarily canceling trips on its 18 ships worldwide through May 10, following a similar temporary suspension by Viking. Carnival, which owns Princess Cruises as well as Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line and several other lines, has not announced whether others will follow suit.
In its proposal, the industry said it plans to deny boarding to anyone older than 70 unless they have a doctor’s note, said people familiar with the plan. People who are obviously ill won’t be allowed to board. The plan also addresses testing passengers for the virus while they are on ships and how cruise lines will pay for the care of sick passengers or crew members.
However, some administration officials do not think the proposal goes far enough to screen passengers or deal with an outbreak, the people said.
Bari Golin-Blaugrund, a spokeswoman for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the industry’s trade group, said the industry is focused on the health and safety of its guests and crew.
“CLIA has participated as-invited in briefings with policymakers since the emergence of the crisis which culminated with a meeting with Vice President Pence,” she said in a statement. “We have submitted an industry-funded plan to the government consistent with input from government officials that doesn’t come with a price tag for taxpayers. Some plan details include more stringent boarding procedures, additional onboard medical protocols, monitoring capabilities, quarantine arrangements and shoreside care for guests and crew in the event of detection of COVID-19.”
Carnival spokesman Roger Frizzell declined to comment on any discussions executives may have had with the White House, but said the company is not seeking a bailout.
“We are working as part of an industry-wide group of cruise line leaders with Vice President Pence to develop proactive initiatives from the cruise industry to enhance our health and safety measures,” he said.
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At the center of the storm
Two Princess ships became central characters in the global spread of the disease when they were found to be carrying infected people and forced to quarantine passengers before they were allowed to disembark.
Trump was infuriated when he learned last month that U.S. authorities had brought coronavirus-infected Americans home from a ship in Japan, as The Washington Post previously reported. He said last week that he would have preferred to leave Americans aboard the second ship docked in California because he did not want the coronavirus numbers to rise in the United States.
About 700 people aboard the Diamond Princess became infected while the ship was moored for weeks off the coast of Japan. Of 3,500 people on a second ship, the Grand Princess, at least 21 have tested positive, and the vessel remains docked in Oakland as tests continue.
Passengers who have been permitted to leave the ship have been sent to military bases in California, Georgia and Texas for quarantine.
Before leaving the Grand Princess, two passengers from Florida filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking more than $1 million in damages for being put at “serious risk of imminent harm.” The company said it is committed to the well-being of its passengers and declined to comment on pending litigation.
A third ship, the Caribbean Princess, was forced to cut short a voyage Sunday and head back to U.S. waters from Costa Rica to test two crew members for the coronavirus. Their tests came back negative.
As the pandemic has grown, health experts have warned that cruise ships could facilitate infections.
“Cruises inherently have conditions that can promote infectious disease spread,” said Henry Wu, assistant professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine and director of the Emory TravelWell Center. “Shared facilities, such as common bathrooms, cafeterias, are of particular concern. Infected crew members or incomplete environmental cleaning can also lead to continuation of outbreaks on subsequent voyages.”
Some lawmakers are pushing for an industry shutdown.
Cruise companies should immediately stop launching new voyages, said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), adding that “if they won’t do it voluntarily, we should look at mandatory measures.”
“Cruise ships are small cities at sea, isolated from professional medical facilities. They compel people to be in very crowded situations,” he told The Post. “They seem to bring together people in almost exactly the way we are trying to avoid at the moment.”
CLIA said that cruise lines work diligently to sanitize ships, screen passengers and train crew members in safety procedures. Ships also undergo inspections by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The cruise sector supports about 422,000 jobs in the United States, more than a third of which are in the key political battleground state of Florida, the trade group said.
But the major cruise lines are incorporated overseas and pay virtually no federal taxes. A patchwork of weak international laws governs the industry, critics say.
In 2016, Princess Cruise Lines agreed to plead guilty to seven felony charges and pay a $40 million penalty for polluting the ocean and then trying to cover it up — the largest criminal penalty involving deliberate pollution by a ship at sea. Princess Cruises was ordered to pay an additional $20 million criminal penalty last year for violating the terms of its probation and deliberately discharging plastic in Bahamian waters. At that time, Arison pledged that his company was “totally committed” to curbing pollution.
Trump’s personal connections to the industry date back more than a decade.
Arison, a billionaire and donor to both political parties, has known Trump for years. The two were photographed in 2005 at a game of Arison’s Miami Heat basketball team with their wives, and Trump sent Arison a congratulatory tweet in 2012 when the team won the NBA championship. Arison returned the favor by congratulating Trump on renovations and new steakhouse at the Trump National Doral golf club in Miami, near Carnival’s own headquarters. (One of Arison’s tweets about Trump was deleted Wednesday after a Post reporter highlighted it.)
Their franchises joined forces at times. In 2005, Trump presided over the launch of a Carnival “Apprentice Legend Cruise” from New York to the Caribbean featuring cast members from “The Apprentice,” his NBC reality show. And in 2017, shortly after his inauguration, Carnival sponsored the two-part finale of “The New Celebrity Apprentice” in which the company’s chief executive appeared in one episode.
Trump has other ties to the cruise industry. His wife, Melania Trump, christened one of the Norwegian Cruise Line’s newest ships in 2005 and was dubbed the vessel’s “godmother.” The company made a $100,000 donation to Trump’s charitable foundation that year.
At a 2017 conference in South Florida, Norwegian Cruise Lines Holdings chief executive Frank Del Rio was widely quoted as crediting what he called “the Trump effect” for a booming stock market, and he said the administration’s pro-business, anti-regulatory posture was good for business.
And some of the president’s top allies have represented the industry, which spent $3.6 million last year on federal lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Brian Ballard, a major Trump fundraiser, and former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, who helped defend Trump during his impeachment trial, were registered federal lobbyists for Carnival North American from February to August last year, lobbying records show.
Tandy Bondi, Bondi’s sister-in-law, remains registered as a federal lobbyist for Carnival North America, records show, and has tried to help the company deal with the virus fallout, according to a person familiar with her role. Tandy Bondi declined to comment.
Crisis leads to a scramble
As the coronavirus crisis unfolded, the industry began a public-relations campaign aimed at reassuring people that cruises are safe and sanitary.
Executives scrambled to convince the administration that it could handle the situation. On Saturday, Pence met with corporate leaders at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, including Del Rio of Norwegian, Carnival chief executive Arnold Donald and Royal Caribbean Cruises chief executive Richard Fain.
A day earlier, two Floridians tested positive for the coronavirus, including one who worked as a guide for cruise companies.
“We made it very clear that we needed cruise lines to be safer; to establish and to embrace new protocols; screening onboard, screening off; new medical protocols; shipboard processes for evacuating people that may contract coronavirus or a serious illness,” Pence later told reporters.
The stern message came after a number of government agencies have been deployed to help those stuck on the cruise ships, officials said.
The Health and Human Services Department has provided health screenings for anyone on the Grand Princess with medical concerns, going door to door on the ship, and is delivering any needed medication to those in quarantine. The Defense Department worked to arrange housing for passengers on four military bases, providing private rooms and bathrooms for the cruise patrons for two weeks while they self-isolated, while also keeping the U.S. military forces separate and protected. In addition, officials are helping to coordinate meals, weather-appropriate clothing and children’s activities.
The State Department’s advisory that Americans should not travel by cruise ship a day after the Pence meeting stunned and angered industry executives, according to people familiar with their responses.
By Tuesday night, the industry had delivered its proposal, hoping to get the administration’s backing and a green light to keep cruising.
But some members of the White House task force are concerned that the cruise lines have not done enough to prepare for more infections, and think the public would be safer staying off the ships, said a senior administration official familiar with the conversations.
How the administration responds will be crucial for an industry that considers its future on the line.
In the past, the industry has batted down attempts by Congress to better protect the passengers’ health and safety, including proposals that would have required that more crew members be trained in emergency procedures.
Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) is co-sponsoring legislation that she said would strengthen requirements for crime reporting and video surveillance on cruise ships, raise medical standards and hold cruise lines responsible for crimes at sea. The bill builds on a 2010 law that mandates that cruise vessels that visit U.S. ports meet certain security and safety requirements, including rail heights of at least 42 inches and reporting certain criminal allegations to the FBI.
But Matsui said the industry has largely managed to avoid such strict regulation because most ships are flagged overseas.
“We didn’t know how tough it was going to be to fight the cruise lines,” she said. “The industry has been very successful.”
Yasmeen Abutaleb, Tom Hamburger and Hannah Sampson contributed to this report.