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Update: Congress Negotiates A Stimulus Plan


There's an aid and economic stimulus package being drawn up in Congress right now, and it may amount to 2 trillion - with a T - dollars. Think of a million piles of one million dollars each. Then double it all. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now to see what may come from those piles of money.

Good morning, Mara.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hopefully, what we're not going to be getting is a massive recession. What do congressional leaders have in this package that may avert that?

LIASSON: What they have in this package is direct cash payments to individuals and families up to $2,400. Democrats got more money for unemployment insurance in the package and for hospitals. So hospitals can buy more masks, more personal protective equipment, more beds. There is bailout money for industries like airlines and hotels. The big question there is, will there be conditions on that money? Yesterday, President Trump said stock buybacks should be prohibited. Remember, this is what happened when...


LIASSON: ...Trump gave tax cuts to big corporations. They didn't pass that windfall onto workers. They just used it to buy back stock and reward their CEOs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So do we think it'll do the trick?

LIASSON: That is a good question. Many economists are skeptical. They say it's not enough. Many small businesses can't stay afloat if they're closed for a few weeks, let alone a few months. And this really depends on how long this crisis goes. Some economists say we're already in a recession. We could be heading for a depression. The U.S. and Europe appear to have already lost the first battle in this war against the virus because they didn't do widespread testing early on, like South Korea and Singapore and Australia did. Now they're really flying blind. They don't know who has it. So they have to shut down huge chunks of the economy. And now it's kind of, like, triage. The government is giving up on broad wide-scale testing containment. They're saying testing should be reserved for health care - frontline health care workers and the most vulnerable people. Meanwhile, the health system is overwhelmed - not enough supplies, masks, respirators, hospital beds, even though the president said just this last week that anyone who wanted a test could get it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, we're talking about an unimaginable amount of money being devoted to a plan that's come together in days. And it'll go to the desk of a president whose response to this crisis has been unsteady and temperamental and heavily criticized by the very people who are supposed to get us out of this, scientists and doctors.

LIASSON: Well, there has been a lot of confusion from President Trump downplaying the severity of the outbreak for weeks, saying he wasn't worried about a pandemic. Later, he said he knew it was a pandemic all along. Just yesterday, he said testing was going great. In fact, there's nowhere to get a test in many areas. There's still a lot of confusion about whether he has actually invoked the Defense Production Act, which would allow him to force companies to manufacture supplies. He said that there is a malarial drug that could be used for COVID-19, but he was directly contradicted by his top government infectious disease specialist, Anthony Fauci, who said, no, it's not. So there's a lot of confusion. Critics say President Trump will say anything to get himself through the next news cycle. But he believes that delivering a relentlessly positive message will convince Americans that his administration is doing a great job, as he says every day. But it can have the opposite effect if what he says turns out not to be true.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mara, doesn't this create a really difficult dynamic? Because the public needs information - right? - about this very dangerous disease. And day after day, that information comes from those two doctors we see at the briefing, Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx. But Donald Trump is also there. And as you point out, he's regularly saying something wrong or misleading.

LIASSON: And not just misleading or wrong. Sometimes, it's divisive and buck-passing. You know, he said, I don't take responsibility at all. He's called the governor of Washington State a snake. He's called the governor of Michigan a failure. And on Friday, he was asked what he'd say to people who were scared. And he lashed out at the reporters, saying, I'd say you are a terrible reporter. Presumably, he was angry because that same reporter had just asked him if he was creating false hope among people saying that there was a treatment ready for COVID-19 when it hasn't. And he's really toggled between being a booster and lashing out at people he thinks doesn't give him enough credit.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And yet his approval rating stays where it's at. Is he successfully passing the buck?

LIASSON: That's unclear. There are a couple of polls that showed more people are approving of his handling of the crisis now than compared to two or three weeks ago. But he has pretty much stayed in that 43 to 46% job approval range that he's been in all along. Gallup had him at a high of 49% after the impeachment trial. Now it's down to 43%. And our poll, the NPR/PBS/Marist poll shows that only 37% of Americans trust the information they're getting from the president. And we don't know what's going to happen over time when people start dying in large numbers, losing their job in large numbers. This is a wave that hasn't crested yet. And we don't know how people will judge the president's leadership in November.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thank you very much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.