“We have a very strong economy,” the president told reporters, “but this blindsided the world.”
Trump, who for weeks has resisted such steps, described the policies at a White House news conference as “very dramatic,” before ceding the lectern to Vice President Pence and top public health experts to deliver a coronavirus update.
Trump’s overall handling of the converging crises — while spreading misinformation and blaming others — has unsettled many of his Republican allies on Capitol Hill and even inside the White House, where some aides acknowledged that the president is compounding problems with his grievances and conspiratorial mind-set.
The coronavirus and the market meltdown present Trump with a challenge unlike any he has faced as president, and one for which he has no ready solution. At a moment when anxious citizens are turning to the government for facts and assurance, Trump is playing down risks and immersing himself in feuds with Democrats, the media and other perceived enemies.
While Pence and other top administration officials coordinated coronavirus mitigation efforts with states and prepared possible emergency economic measures to shore up battered industries, Trump carried on with his plans. The president awoke at his Florida estate, where he had played golf over the weekend, attended a campaign fundraiser and shook hands with supporters before returning to Washington for a coronavirus update from his task force.
During a meeting with the nation’s governors Monday in the White House Situation Room, Pence and his team tried to assuage their concerns and explain how states could seek emergency federal funds or provide guidelines on school closures and quarantines, which they anticipate only the hardest-hit communities might need.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) expressed dismay after leaving the Pence meeting that Trump’s statements “sometimes conflict with the information we’re getting from the rest of the administration.”
“He at times just says whatever comes to mind or tweets, then someone on TV is saying the opposite,” Hogan said in an interview. “It’s critically important that the message is straightforward and fact-based for the public.”
Trump, in one of more than a dozen tweets he sent before noon Monday, wrote, “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
Inside the White House, some officials privately acknowledged Monday that Trump has exacerbated the problem with his misleading and false statements, as well as his callous comments — such as saying last Friday that he hoped infected cruise passengers would stay aboard the Grand Princess at sea because he didn’t want domestic coronavirus case numbers to rise.
What little trust existed between Trump and the Democrats in Congress who voted to impeach or convict him has eroded in recent days.
“I don’t think we can ignore how disastrous their performance has been,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in an interview. “In many ways this was the moment we feared: a true security threat to the nation and a president who can’t tell the truth, who can’t organize a consistent response and doesn’t have enough experienced people on the job.”
Markets plummeted Monday amid global alarm over the coronavirus and a showdown over oil prices, with the Dow Jones industrial average falling more than 2,000 points, or roughly 7.8 percent. It was the worst drop for stocks since the beginning of the 2008 recession, and trading was so volatile that the New York Stock Exchange tripped the so-called circuit breaker to temporarily halt trading in a bid to encourage stability.
Trump had resisted taking dramatic action, aides said, because he was fearful of causing alarm among the public or further rattling investors. But he changed course Monday after aides presented him with a list of options they thought could help deal with the economic problems caused by the outbreak.
Trump told reporters he will ask Congress to cut payroll taxes, provide relief to hourly workers and provide assistance to the airline, hotel and cruise industries, which are suffering because many Americans are canceling travel plans.
“We’re taking care of the American public and we will be taking care of the American public,” Trump said.
It is unclear whether Trump’s proposals will be embraced on Capitol Hill. Democratic leaders are barely on speaking terms with the White House, and some conservative Republicans are uneasy about a payroll tax cut.
Members of Trump’s coronavirus task force have also discussed declaring a national emergency, which would involve invoking the 1988 Stafford Act to enable the Federal Emergency Management Agency to take disaster-level action, officials said, but those discussions remain preliminary.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow will meet with Senate Republicans at their lunch Tuesday, according to two people briefed on the plans. In addition, the White House has invited top Wall Street executives to meet this week.
Trump has been reluctant “to shut down an industry” or “tell anyone they can’t go anywhere,” said a senior administration official.
On Sunday, however, the State Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered guidance urging Americans — especially older adults with underlying health conditions — to defer cruise travel.
The day before, during a meeting with cruise executives, Pence issued a far sterner warning in private, according to someone familiar with the conversation. Pence told cruise executives that if they do not develop by Tuesday a clear plan to prevent another coronavirus outbreak from happening again on a ship, Trump is prepared to take much stronger actions than he has so far.
Publicly, Trump has accused the media of hyping coronavirus to damage his political standing. Privately, he brooded throughout the weekend about news stories that detailed the ways his administration squandered precious weeks and bungled its handling of the crisis, with much of the blame falling on the president.
“He sees the stories as everyone just being out to get him,” said one administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the president’s mind-set.
Trump is proud of the initial restriction he imposed on travelers from China and has repeatedly complained that he does not get enough credit, to the point of mentioning it in nearly every meeting, several senior Republicans said.
Trump has spent much of the past four days tending to campaign benefactors and preoccupied with his own political future. He has used those settings to complain about what he considers to be coronavirus hysteria in the media and overreaction by financial markets.
“It’s not that big of a deal,” Trump said at one of the events, according to people who heard the comments.
People who interacted with Trump over the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., or the nearby Trump International Golf Club, said the president was in gleeful spirits. He stopped by to toast Kimberly Guilfoyle, the girlfriend of his son Donald Trump Jr., at her 51st birthday party.
Doug Deason, a Trump donor in attendance, said the president shook almost every hand in sight. “What he keyed in on in his remarks is you’ve just got to live your life,” Deason said. “He’s out there shaking hands.”
Trump also shook hands with supporters who gathered Monday at Orlando Sanford International Airport to watch Air Force One land.
Even as Trump continued to glad-hand constituents, two Republican congressmen who interacted with him in recent days, Reps. Douglas A. Collins (Ga.) and Matt Gaetz (Fla.), said Monday that they were quarantining themselves because of contact with a confirmed carrier of the coronavirus at a conservative conference. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), named Friday as Trump’s new chief of staff, also announced Monday that he was isolating himself after coming in contact with same unidentified person.
The CDC has advised people not to shake hands, among other preventive measures. But White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement that the president and his aides were “conducting business as usual.”
Appearing on Fox News Channel, Grisham said, “The president of the United States, as we all know, is quite a hand washer. He uses hand sanitizer all the time. So he’s not concerned about this at all.”
One reason for Trump’s lack of concern is the stream of information he receives from unofficial channels. Even as government health officials have tried to sound the alarm to the president, he has also heard competing claims from friends he calls between official business and late at night.
Some friends have told Trump that the coronavirus does not seem like a major threat, noting that they don’t know anyone in their communities who has been infected. Some also have sought to flatter Trump by saying that unlike the two septuagenarians running for the Democratic nomination — Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — Trump, 73, is so healthy that he is not personally at particular risk, according to a senior administration official.
David Axelrod, who was a senior adviser in the Obama White House during the H1N1 outbreak of 2009, said, “This is a situation in which denial and conspiracy theories can lead to catastrophic results.” He added, “You can’t spin an epidemic or pandemic.”
This crisis comes during a season of upheaval in the West Wing. Trump ousted acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney last Friday and replaced him with Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who is known for his loyalty and hard-line conservatism.
Trump’s handling of the coronavirus carries risks for his reelection, now eight months away.
“The baseline of popular government is that we want safety and security — that’s why we have social contracts in the first place — and presidents who provide that are rewarded while presidents who don’t are punished,” historian Jon Meacham said. “The tumult of much of the Trump era has been elective or somewhat abstract. This isn’t. It’s about two of things that matter most to people — health and money.”
Congressional Republicans hoping to hold their Senate majority and win back the House in November’s elections are increasingly on edge, according to aides and former lawmakers who are speaking with vulnerable incumbents.
“It’s really bad for those who have kind of hitched their wagon to the president ahead of this year’s election and are relying on him and his base,” said former senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a Trump critic.
Brendan Buck, who served as counselor to former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), said, “It’s way too early to make any long-term predictions about the politics of this. If we’ve learned anything in three years it’s that even the biggest political moments have proven to be pretty fleeting.”
Since Trump put Pence in charge of the coronavirus response on Feb. 26, the vice president and his team have worked to streamline the process, add experts to the task force and arrange near-daily media briefings. They are also trying to ensure that public health officials reach a wider audience, including working to book Surgeon General Jerome Adams on “The Doctor Oz Show” later this week.
After Monday’s meeting, Hogan praised Pence, and said his confidence in the vice president is shared by other governors, Republicans and Democrats alike.
“He’s really made for this,” Hogan said of Pence. “It’s right up his alley. He gave every single governor his personal cellphone number and said to call with any problems.”
Drawing a contrast, Hogan added, “The president could be more effective in personal communications and not tweet as much.”
Anne Gearan and Jeff Stein contributed to this report.