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Politics In The Time Of The Coronavirus


We're focusing today's program on the coronavirus and the various ways it's been affecting people and institutions. And we're going to spend the next few minutes focusing on the political and economic fallout of the coronavirus outbreak. And we know you've been hearing a lot about hygiene, washing your hands, correctly, and so forth. We're going to talk about how you can practice information hygiene, protecting yourself from misinformation during this crisis. First, though, the politics of coronavirus. For that, we go to NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, good to talk with you once again.


MARTIN: So this week, we've seen a rare thing in Washington, D.C. Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly passed a significant bipartisan piece of emergency legislation. Now, it wasn't unanimous. Forty House Republicans voted no. But how significant is that?

MONTANARO: Well, look. It's certainly a large piece of legislation. It allocates funding for coronavirus testing, unemployment benefits, extensions of Medicaid and a degree of sick leave. Now, this is where some of the, you know, controversy comes in because it's got two weeks paid leave, another 10 which people could be eligible for. Small businesses and people who are self-employed can get tax credits for that.

The catch here, though, is that we're talking about companies only with 500 or fewer employees, you know? The big companies, the kinds that President Trump was praising at - in the Rose Garden the other day with CEOs - they're exempt from guaranteeing the sick leave.

MARTIN: So, you know, in a tweet today, President Trump praised the good teamwork between Republicans and Democrats in Washington. He said it was nice to see. But what about him? Now, I know that many health experts have criticized him for downplaying the severity of the crisis. Other people have criticized him for excessively praising himself. But apart from that, is he putting politics aside?

MONTANARO: You know, it's been shaky, frankly, from the president. I mean, he's downplayed the potential effect. He put out misinformation. He sounded incoherent at many points, to be honest. He's concerned with how this all looks for him. He's underplayed the potential number of cases, openly saying how he likes low numbers. And that's not how experts say you stop the spread of a highly contagious infectious disease. I mean, it's been very confused mixed messaging, even down to whether he's been tested.

Now, he said today he was tested, yesterday. And the White House doctor in a letter last night said he didn't need to be. The president said anyone who wanted a test could get one. That wasn't true. Now, he's saying that not everyone even should get a test. So it's all got people scratching their heads, feeling like they're on their own in this crisis and questioning if they can believe what they're hearing from their public leaders.

MARTIN: And we cannot forget that a presidential election campaign is still going on. I mean, that just is the reality of it. Both of the main Democratic contenders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, have made statements this week. What did they say? And how else are they responding to the current moment?

MONTANARO: Well, pretty predictably, both have criticized President Trump's response. Bernie Sanders early on wrote an op-ed about what he would do and the need to follow science. Vice President - former Vice President Biden had a whole speech on it this week, trying to really position himself, politically, looking like the opposite of President Trump almost as if he was in general election mode already. He's named an entire advisory committee and released detailed plans of what he would do. In the short run, it does seem to have benefited Biden in some ways. In the last two rounds of primaries, people said in exit polls that they were concerned with coronavirus. More people said that they trusted Biden than Sanders to deal with a major crisis.

And we have elections coming up on Tuesday in key states. And this has really paused campaigning as we know it. Candidates aren't doing events in person. They're relying much more heavily on their digital operations. Even the debate that was supposed to take place tomorrow night in Arizona in front of an audience isn't going to happen in front of an audience. Now, it's been moved to CNN's D.C. TV studio. It's really unlike anything we've ever seen before in politics, Michel. The only thing it really reminds me of is immediately after Sept. 11.

MARTIN: We have about 30 seconds left. But what about the president? We know that he really has - he really enjoys these big rallies. He's had some of them in states where he's - where the Democrats have been campaigning. What about him? Has he indicated what direction he has - his campaign said, whether they're going to suspend those as well?

MONTANARO: Yeah. Despite early tough talk, they've canceled all those events now. He was scheduled to go to Milwaukee for a Catholics for Trump event next week. That's off. Trump's campaign also canceled trips to Colorado and Nevada because of the coronavirus caution. And what it's really doing is changing how both parties, people within both parties see this - Republicans downplaying it, Democrats thinking it's a big threat.

MARTIN: That is NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, thank you.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.