WASHINGTON — As fears about the coronavirus outbreak roiled financial markets, the nation’s political leaders grappled Monday with a public health and economic maelstrom — as well as concerns for their own safety.
At the Pentagon, officials have begun “social distancing” measures. On Monday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s regular meeting with senior staff, which normally would be held face-to-face in a single room with 40 to 50 participants, was broken up into three rooms, with video-teleconferencing among the rooms, according to the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman. He said Esper and the 15 to 20 people in his room, including Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sat at least 6 feet apart, in line with health guidance.
The White House said it is "conducting business as usual," and President Donald Trump sought to project calm as the epidemic poses one of the greatest tests yet to his administration.
Trump officials argued that they had the matter well in hand, and charged political opponents with rooting for an economic collapse. On Capitol Hill, at least three lawmakers were in self-quarantine as discussions were underway on how to address the virus outbreak and economic volatility and keep the government functioning.
Trump dove into shake hands with supporters Monday morning when arriving to headline a fundraiser in Longwood, Florida, that raised approximately $4 million for his reelection campaign and the Republican Party. He ignored shouted questions about the plunging stock market as he boarded Air Force One for the flight back to Washington.
In Monday morning tweets, Trump lashed out at the steep market drop and news that large public gatherings were being called off because of the virus.
“At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths,” Trump tweeted, comparing it to seasonal influenza and the thousands of deaths that causes. “Think about that!”
Scientists at this stage don’t know what the death rate of the new coronavirus actually is and whether it will wind up being about the same as flu or worse.
At the same time, administration officials were insistent that they weren’t trying to dismiss public concerns. “This is a very serious health problem,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told Fox News.
Trump was delegating much of the virus response to Vice President Mike Pence, who convened a video teleconference to give an update on the federal government’s virus response Monday afternoon with the nation’s governors. Pence was also scheduled to lead a meeting of the administration’s task force on Monday before holding a press briefing.
Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., and Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga. put themselves in voluntary quarantine after exposure to a person who tested positive for the virus at last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference.
Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said he had been notified by CPAC officials that they had discovered a photo of him with the infected person.
In a statement, Collins said he did not have any symptoms but would wait out the remainder of the 14 days since the contact at home. He met Trump on Tuesday night at the White House and shook hands with Trump on Friday when the president visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Atlanta headquarters.
Trump was meeting Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Larry Kudlow and other aides when he returned to the White House about a range of economic actions he could take. He also invited Wall Street executives to the White House later in the week to discuss the economic fallout of the epidemic.
Kudlow, director of the president’s National Economic Council, told reporters Friday that the administration is not looking at a “massive” federal relief plan. Rather, any federal aid package would be “timely and targeted and micro.”
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill had barely started to contemplate the economic implications of the spread of the virus and what might be needed to stimulate the economy as people cancel vacations and business trips and stay away from stores. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley is “exploring the possibility of targeted tax relief measures that could provide a timely and effective response to the coronavirus,” spokesman Michael Zona said Monday.
“Everything’s on the table,” Grassley told reporters.
Democrats indicated they preferred other responses, like passing legislation requiring employers to give their workers paid sick leave — a longtime policy priority of Democrats — and additional help for those with lower incomes.
“The best way to ensure economic security for the American people right now is to deal with the coronavirus itself, competent and full on,” said Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. “Something we haven’t yet seen. Getting a handle on the crisis and containing the spread of the virus is by far the best way to address any effects on the economy.”
A day after saying it was “proceeding as normal,” Trump’s campaign canceled a three-day Women for Trump bus tour across Michigan that included Mercedes Schlapp, the former White House aide who is married to the American Conservative Union chairman, Matt Schlapp.
Schlapp is under self-quarantine after after he, too, was exposed to the infected person at CPAC. He introduced Trump and greeted him with a handshake on stage before the president’s spoke on Feb. 29.
“The president of the United States, as we all know, is quite a hand washer,” press secretary Stephanie Grisham told Fox News. “He uses hand sanitizer all the time. So he’s not concerned about this at all.”
Associated Press writers Lauran Neergaard, Andy Taylor, Kevin Freking, Jill Colvin, Bob Burns, Lisa Mascaro and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.