President Donald Trump said Thursday the government should take an equity stake in companies bailed out in the coronavirus pandemic, a step that would mark an extraordinary federal reach into the private sector.
He also held out hope that treatments for COVID-19 might be at hand, voicing far more optimism about quick therapies than federal scientists have expressed.
Trump sought to calm the public's fears as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. climbed above 11,000, with at least 168 deaths. He gave an upbeat promotion of therapeutic drugs in early testing that he said could be “a game-changer and maybe not” in treating those suffering with COVID-19.
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But the head of the Food and Drug Administration cautioned that the drugs were still being tested for their effectiveness and safety, a process that takes months and may or may not yield anything.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers worked urgently to fashion a $1 trillion aid package to prop up households and the U.S. economy, starting with a White House proposal to send Americans direct aid, potentially $3,000 for a family of four. Congress also is working to increase production of medical supplies and build temporary field hospitals under new authorities Trump invoked in the Defense Production Act.
Republicans want to have small businesses send paychecks to workers being forced to stay home — through government assistance that would not have to be repaid. They also want to shore up airlines and other industries, but those loans would have to be paid back. Democrats are exploring “unemployment insurance on steroids.”
His mood turning at a White House briefing, Trump stepped up his criticism of China for not telling the world earlier about the spreading disease that started there and went global. The "world is paying a very big price" because of that, he said. Trump now is repeatedly citing the “Chinese virus” or “China virus” despite the fraught connotations of naming a disease after a people or a country.
“Now the whole world is inflicted with this horrible, horrible virus and it's too bad,” Trump said, lamenting how the U.S economy was healthy “just a few weeks ago.”
More than eight weeks after the first U.S. case of the virus was detected, the federal government is still struggling to conduct wide-scale testing. Compounding the problem, laboratories are reporting shortages of supplies needed to protect health care workers and ventilators that are used to treat respiratory symptoms of the virus.
For most people, COVID-19 causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
Trump called the battle against coronavirus a “medical war” not a “financial war.” But he said he believed the U.S. government should take equity stakes in some companies hard hit by the pandemic and aided by taxpayers. Some Republicans in Congress worry this could lead to the government picking winners and losers.
“We will be helping the airline industry," he said. “We will be helping the cruise ship industry. We probably will be helping the hotel industry.” He said the administration will also help small businesses, the “engine of the country.”
But he suggested that such federal aid should not be used by companies to buy back their stock, and he said he would support restrictions on executive bonuses and future buybacks from companies receiving the federal support.
On the medical front, Trump and Dr. Stephen Hahn, the Food and Drug Administration commissioner, described several approaches to treatment under testing. Among them: chloroquine, a drug long used to treat malaria; remdesivir, an experimental antiviral that's being tried in at least five separate studies; antibodies culled from the blood of COVID-19 patients when they recover.
Chloroquine is widely available already and could be used off-label, but Hahn said officials want a formal study to get good information on whether it helps people with COVID-19 and is safe. No new and imminent treatments were announced at the briefing.
"We're looking at drugs that are already approved for other indications" as a potential bridge or stopgap until studies are completed on drugs under investigation, Hahn said.
After the briefing, Trump went to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is leading the national coronavirus response, to have a teleconference with governors, who have complained of a lack of tests and medical supplies. Vice President Mike Pence said the response, however, will be federally supported but executed by state and local officials.
“The federal government's not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping," Trump said. “You know, we're not a shipping clerk.” He said governors “are supposed to be doing it.”
“We'll help out and we'll help out wherever we can," he said. Just a day earlier, though, Trump invoked emergency powers enabling the federal government to shape private-sector production to try to fill critical shortages in ventilators, masks and other supplies for patients. U.S. officials said cases are certain to surge as backlogged labs report results and as infection continues to grow in the population.
Medical officials are stressing that people should stay away from one another to help stop the spread of the virus.
Social distancing is proving a challenge in the tight quarters of the White House briefing room. When they walked out for the briefing, the task force members on stage spread out widely. “We practice what we preach,” Surgeon General Jerome Adams said.
But moments later, the vice president’s press secretary popped out into the briefing room and directed them to move closer together, presumably to make room for her boss.
Adams jokingly put out his elbow to show there was still some separation between them and said they would all wash their hands when they were done.
Trump, meanwhile, who is at increased risk of serious illness because of his age, stood so close to some of the officials answering questions at the podium that they could not stand fully in front of it.
Trump took note of the cramped quarters, too, and claimed that social distancing was making the media “nicer.” Yet he assailed some of his coverage, saying, "It amazed me when I read the things that I read. He slammed as “fake news” outlets whose reporters have worked to hold his administration accountable for its delayed response.
Associated Press writer Matthew Perrone contributed to this report.