WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump signaled impatience Monday with federal social distancing guidelines intended to stem the spread of coronavirus and said his administration is moving to ease some of those restrictions to restart the economy.
After positioning himself last week as a "wartime" president in an epic struggle against an "invisible enemy," Trump's messaging about his administration's response to COVID-19 shifted dramatically Monday as he appeared increasingly open to standing down some of the stricter guidance he touted just days earlier as critical to containing the virus.
"I'm not looking at months," Trump said of the duration of social distancing guidelines that have led to school closures and millions of Americans working from home and avoiding restaurants and other businesses. "Why would we close down 100% of the country?"
The remarks were a major departure from Trump's prediction just days ago that the guidelines could potentially be place through the summer. Trump appeared to signal that parts of the country that are less hard hit could be placed under less strict guidelines than states like New York and California.
“At a certain point we have to get open,” Trump said. “We have to get moving. We don’t want to lose these companies…We’ll be doing something relatively quickly.”
Trump's latest reasoning – that the cure shouldn't be worse than the disease – has been bubbling up for days mostly among Republicans, business groups and conservative media outlets as lawmakers struggle to pass a relief package. Some observers have questioned whether Congress would be able to hold off the enormous threat the virus poses to the economy even if Republicans and Democrats were fully in sync.
"What was very clear is that in the first two weeks the need to address the threat of the coronavirus was paramount," said David McIntosh, a former Republican congressman from Indiana who is now the president of the influential conservative group Club for Growth. "But over time, you can't keep the whole economy shut down endlessly."
Trump's new tone on the economy comes as the effort to move forward with a nearly $2 trillion economic stimulus package has stalled in the Senate for the second day in a row. The measure would provide direct payments to Americans and assist hard-hit industries. Democrats and Republicans agree on the broad goals for the package but are struggling to reach agreement on the details.
White House aides speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations acknowledged Trump is anxious to end tough social distancing guidelines adopted March 16, adding that the president is being bombarded by projections of a 20% to 30% unemployment rate and economic growth rates plunging by up to 30%.
On the other hand, aides said, Trump is anxious to defeat the virus and hasn't made a final decision because health experts are advising that the restrictions are necessary. Health officials have warned of a spike in new cases over the next several weeks that could tip the balance back toward caution rather than seeking a return to normal.
"It sounds tone deaf and I understand it but it’s got to be said," said former Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who said he had been in communication with the White House about his concerns of a lack of balance in the government's response to coronavirus.
"There's this rush, this herd rushing all in one direction – understandably," Corker told USA TODAY. "The flip side is, there’s no balance. The balance is if we continue this status that we’re in right now I'm concerned that the cure is going to be far worse than the disease itself."
Corker isn't alone in that assessment.
Trump initially asserted that the aim of the guidelines, which he said would be in place for at least 15 days, was to "bend the curve" of new COVID-19 cases to reduce the potential strain on hospitals. It's difficult to say how effective the guidelines have been, but health experts say social distancing is key to reducing transmission of the virus.
"Each and every one of us has a critical role to play,” Trump said in the White House when he announced the guidelines last week. “If everyone makes these critical changes and sacrifices now, we will rally together as one nation, and we will defeat the virus.”
But with more than a week to go before the 15-day window closes, Trump appeared to signal the possibility of easing the guidelines. The president asserted in an all-caps tweet Sunday that the nation could not let the "CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM." He then retweeted several supporters who argued that most Americans who do not have complicating underlying health conditions should perhaps return to work soon.
Between those statements Trump watched the stock market plummet and has been hit with dire warnings about a dramatic economic contraction. Investing banking giant Morgan Stanley reported over the weekend the economy could shrink by 30.1% in the second quarter. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has lost more than three years of gains.
It's not only Republicans raising questions about the long-term economic impact of the closures. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday sounded a similar message. "There has to be a balance, or parallel tracks that we’re going down,” the Democrat said. "We also have to start to plan the pivot back to economic functionality."
But public health officials such as Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has repeatedly argued for reducing crowds and keeping people separated. It's also not clear how much impact loosening the federal guidance would have given that New York, California and more states are closing schools and imposing more rigorous lock downs than Washington.
In the meantime, Trump is feeling pressure on the issue publicly and privately.
"We can’t shut in the economy," White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told Fox News on Monday. "The economic cost to individuals is just too great."
While advocating the increased use of coronavirus testing, Kudlow said "the president is right, the cure can’t be worse than the disease. And we’re going to have to make some difficult trade-offs."
Republican economist Art Laffer said he had spoken with the president on the point in recent days, encouraging him to press for a payroll tax holiday and not rely on Congress to get the economy moving again. Trump initially pushed for a payroll tax reduction, but the idea faced resistance on Capitol Hill. Laffer acknowledged he is no expert in public health, but said he is concerned the public response to the virus is being driven partly by emotion.
“There comes a point where the tipping tips over,” Laffer said of the “escalating” costs to the economy. “Sometimes just sitting down and being quiet is the best policy.”
Gary Cohn, a former economic adviser to Trump, asked in a Sunday tweet: "Is it time to start discussing the need for a date when the economy can turn back on?" Cohn said "businesses need clarity" on the way forward, "otherwise they will assume the worst and make decisions to survive."