Donald Trump avoided declaring a national emergency over the coronavirus outbreak but is shutting down all travel from Europe – with the exception of the UK – and reversing himself by urging sick people to “stay home”.
The president addressed the country from the Oval Office, seated behind the storied Resolute Desk, for just the second time in three years. Despite his own attacks on Democrats for criticising his uneven response, he called for national unity as he laid out a number of steps he is taking or asking Congress to take to defeat the novel virus.
Mr Trump laid out a strategy to put in place measures intended to stave off a widespread outbreak while also providing new guardrails to prevent a complete economic crash. Describing the disease as a “foreign virus”, he took a jab at China, where it originated on a day when his national security adviser accused Beijing of covering up it being unleashed there.
He reversed himself on one of his most controversial statements since the outbreak became serious a few weeks ago when he several times said ill workers should clock in despite his own public health officials urging them to stay at home. Mr Trump’s strategy is now to contain the spread of the virus, as he essentially described a plan to keep people spread out so infected individuals do not pass it on; he pleaded with Americans to avoid large crowds and suggested large events be cancelled.
“If we are vigilant and we can reduce the chance of infection [and] impede the transmission of the virus,” Mr Trump said. “The virus will not have a chance against us.”
One major part of his plan on halting its spread is to cut off, starting 20 March, all travel from Europe into the United States. The one country exempted will be Britain. The executive branch and executive office of the president have vast emergency and national security powers, which he is tapping into as he essentially tries to put a blanket on a growing fire.
“The way it was and the way it will be. It only matters how you respond,” he said, declaring his administration took “early, intense action” and almost boasting the United States has “fewer cases than in Europe.”
“The EU failed to take the same precautions,” he said, lauding his own decision to ban all travel from China.
Most travel bans do not apply to US citizens, legal permanent residents or their immediate family members. The administration is targeting Europeans, given the high number of cases there.
The European ban will include several carve outs, including “exemptions for Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings,” he said, and items being traded between the US and EU countries – but some final decisions have yet to be made.
“Anything coming from Europe is what we’re discussing,” the president said, signalling to EU officials he is interested in cutting a deal.
Additionally, he announced what he described as “several strong but necessary” steps, including small business assistance he said will inject extra “liquidity” into the US economy amid a stock market crash and worries about a recession.
Mr Trump is banking on a strong economy to help him win a second term.
He all but challenged the virus to a fight, bragging that the US has the “greatest economy anywhere in the world – by far” and when he said America’s “vast economy prosperity gives us resources” to beat coronavirus.
To keep it that way as he hopes warming temperatures and efforts to slow its spread will make a major difference, he announced he is taking “emergency action to provide financial relief” to hour workers who are sick, caring for a sick loved one or in quarantine.
He also is asking Congress to pass legislation that would extend that tax relief to hourly employees.
“This is not a financial crisis, just a temporary moment in time that we will overcome,” Mr Trump said, striking a rare unifying tone.
And despite lashing out at Democrats earlier in the day on Twitter, this was part of his speech’s wrap up: “We are all in this together, stop the partisanship and unify together as one nation and one family.”
In a sign the president is taking the virus more seriously, the White House issued a statement saying Mr Trump has cancelled a planned trip later this week to Colorado and Nevada – two states he wants to win to secure a second term – “out of an abundance of caution.”