Trump declares national emergency, frees up $50B to fight virus

The declaration will help state and local governments respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. Central to the aid package is free testing for the virus, guaranteed sick pay for workers, and financial support for unemployment benefits and food programs.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Donald Trump, speaking from the White House March 13, 2020, declares a national emergency to free up funds for relief against the coronavirus. Wall Street responded favorably to the announcement, sending the Dow Jones Industrial Average up 1,985 points.

President Donald Trump on Friday declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency, as Washington struggles with providing Americans with relief and officials race to slow the spread of the outbreak.

Speaking from the Rose Garden, Mr. Trump said, “I am officially declaring a national emergency.” He said it would free up as much as $50 billion for state and local governments to respond to the outbreak. Mr. Trump also waived interest on federally held student loans and moved to prop up energy markets, by directing the Department of Energy to buy oil to fill the strategic petroleum reserve “‘right up to the top.”

Mr. Trump said he was giving Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar emergency authorities to waive federal regulations and laws to give doctors and hospitals “flexibility” in treating patients.

“Through a very collective action and shared sacrifice, national determination, we will overcome the threat of the virus,” Mr. Trump said.

He also announced a new public-private partnership to expand coronavirus testing capabilities, as his administration has come under fire for being too slow in making the test available. Mr. Trump said, “I don’t take responsibility at all” for the slow roll-out of testing.

The partnership will include drive-thru testing in some locations and an online portal to screen those seeking to get tested.

Still, Mr. Trump said that officials don’t want people taking the test unless they have certain symptoms. “We don’t want people without symptoms to go and do that test,” Mr. Trump said, adding, “It’s totally unnecessary.”

Mr. Trump said the White House and Congress have yet to agree on a broader aid package, claiming that he doesn’t believe House Democrats are “giving enough.” Lawmakers are preparing to vote on their own measure Friday.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday the House would approve its coronavirus aid package, imploring the Trump administration and congressional Republicans to “put families first” by backing the effort to provide Americans with relief.

The House Democratic leader spoke from the speaker’s balcony at the Capitol ahead of Trump’s news conference at the White House, as the power centers of Washington were shuttered to visitors.

“Our nation, our great nation has faced crisis before,” Ms. Pelosi said. “And every time, thanks to the courage and optimism of the American people, we have prevailed. Now, working together, we will once again prevail.”

Central to the package is free testing for the virus and guaranteed sick pay for workers who are taking time away from jobs, along with an infusion of dollars to handle unemployment benefits and boost food programs for children, families and seniors.

Ms. Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, whom Mr. Trump tapped to negotiate for the administration, have engaged in around-the-clock negotiations that continued even as Mr. Trump was speaking.

But Republican leaders in Congress slowed the deal, wanting assurances that Mr. Trump would publicly support the agreement before signing off on it ahead of any vote, according to a top congressional aide unauthorized to discuss the private talks and speaking on condition of anonymity.

GOP leader Kevin McCarthy of California, the House minority leader, huddled with Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Trump at the White House earlier Friday.

“We can only defeat this outbreak if we have an accurate determination of its scale and scope, so that we can pursue the precise science-based response that is necessary to put families first,” Ms. Pelosi said.

The White House is under enormous pressure, dealing with the crisis on multiple fronts as it encroached ever closer on the president.

The virus has swept in alarming ways across American life, sending the financial markets into a dangerous slide and shuttering schools and sporting events and limiting everyday interactions in communities across the country.

Providing sick pay for workers is a crucial element of federal efforts to stop the rapid spread of the infection. Officials warn that the nation’s healthcare system could quickly become overwhelmed with gravely sick patients, as suddenly happened in Italy, one of the countries hardest hit by the virus. 

The ability to ensure paychecks will keep flowing – for people who stay home as a preventative measure or because they’re feeling ill or caring for others – can help assure Americans they will not fall into financial hardship.

Mr. Trump’s 73-minute remarks capped a tumultuous week in which Washington strained for a comprehensive response to an outbreak that is testing the nation’s political, financial and health care systems.

Hospitals welcomed Mr. Trump’s emergency declaration, which they and lawmakers in Congress had been requesting. It allows the Health and Human Services Department to temporarily waive certain federal rules that can make it harder for hospitals and other health care facilities to respond to an emergency.

Such rules include a Medicare requirement that a patient spend three days in the hospital before the program will pay for care in a nursing facility. Waiving the rule would make more inpatient beds available. Another rule requires doctors and other clinicians to be licensed in the state in which they are providing services. It can be waived if the physician is licensed in another state.

The American Medical Association said the emergency declaration would help ensure America’s health care system has sufficient resources to properly respond to the ongoing outbreak.

Mr. Trump’s actions were also viewed favorably on Wall Street, sending the Dow Jones Industrial Average up 1,985 points, or 9.4%, its best gain since October 2008. Stocks doubled their gains in the last half-hour of trading as Mr. Trump made his remarks.

Mr. Trump has struggled to show he’s on top of the crisis, after giving conflicting descriptions of what the U.S. is doing to combat the virus.

The House aid package builds on an emergency $8.3 billion measure approved last week.

Ms. Pelosi promised a third coronavirus package will follow soon, though the House is leaving Washington on Friday for a previously scheduled recess. That measure will include more aggressive steps to boost the U.S. economy, which economists fear has already slipped into recession.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writers Aamer Madhani, Alan Fram, Lauran Neergaard, Martin Crutsinger, Laurie Kellman, Michael Balsamo, and Kevin Freking in Washington and Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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