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White House eyes huge stimulus for election-year economy addled by virus

A trader reacts to the day's developments Thursday

A trader reacts to the day's developments Thursday on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Credit: AP / Richard Drew

Cri$is mode

President Donald Trump soon may find out what — if anything — he and lawmakers can do to keep an economic virus from spreading less than eight months before an election.

The Federal Reserve, which has been a frequent target of Trump complaints and prodding, announced Thursday it would offer at least $1.5 trillion worth of short-term loans to banks. The central bank's move was a bid to calm fears, although stock markets resumed their free fall, driven by the global coronavirus pandemic.

Trump continued to try to exude optimism. "The markets are going to be just fine,” he said as shares cratered in Wall Street's worst day since the 1987 crash.

The president made the remark as he greeted Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar at the White House. Ireland was excluded from the European nations facing the new U.S. travel restrictions taking effect Friday. The European Union issued a statement saying it "disapproves of the fact that the U.S. decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation."

The travel ban, announced in Trump's prime-time speech to the nation Wednesday (see transcript here), exempts Ireland and the United Kingdom (three Trump-owned golf resorts are located in the two countries), plus Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania. It covers another 26 nations in Europe's Schengen Area, which the Trump administration said exported 201 COVID-19 cases to 53 countries.

Talks took shape in Congress Thursday on an aid relief package. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell canceled a planned one-week recess. “I am glad talks are ongoing between the Administration and [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi,” McConnell tweeted.

The president has been pushing an economic stimulus plan that would cost the Treasury more than the 2008 bank bailout or the 2009 stimulus bill. His proposed slash of the payroll tax would add $1 trillion to the national debt. The administration's ability to negotiate bipartisan legislation has proved shaky in the past.

Biden & Sanders audition

The nation's weak capacity for testing for coronavirus has triggered criticism from public health experts. It became an obvious target of attack for the two Democrats still vying to oppose Trump in November.

"The administration's failure on testing is colossal, and it's a failure of planning, leadership and execution," former Vice President Joe Biden said from his home state of Delaware as he outlined his own blueprint for the problem.

"The core principle is simple: Public health professionals must be the ones making our public health decisions and communicating with the American people," Biden said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called Trump "incompetent" and drew a potentially dire picture in a speech from his home state.

“The crisis we face from the coronavirus is on a scale of a major war, and we must act accordingly,” he said. “The number of casualties may actually be even higher than what the armed forces experienced in World War II. In other words, we have a major, major crisis and we must act accordingly.”

Where the trail picks up

Because of the virus outbreak, Biden and Sanders are due to square off in a televised CNN one-on-one debate Sunday in Washington, D.C., without a studio audience. It runs from 8 to 10 p.m.

Meanwhile, tallies of the Super Tuesday vote in California show Sanders is still the projected winner of the delegate-rich state's primary, with 34.3% of the vote.

Biden placed second with 27.6% and Sen. Elizabeth Warren and ex-New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, both who dropped out, landed in third and fourth place, respectively.

According to NBC News, Sanders is on track to pick up 202 of the state's delegates to 148 for Biden, who leads in the overall delegate count.

No virus test for Trump?

For all the downplaying Trump has done, coronavirus seems to keep striking awfully close to home.

First it was disclosed that Trump met at his Mar-a-Lago resort Saturday with a Brazilian official who has since tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19. His name is Fabio Wajngarten, communications secretary to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence had “almost no interactions” with Wajngarten and therefore did not need to be tested.

But photos show they were in pretty close proximity.

Then Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) revealed that he would self-quarantine and work remotely because he was at the same event and was doing so on his doctor's advice. Graham said he was awaiting test results.

New bloodshed in Iraq

The U.S. launched airstrikes Thursday in Iraq, targeting the Iranian-backed Shia militia members believed responsible for the rocket attack that killed and wounded American and British troops at a base north of Baghdad, The Associated Press reported.

Tensions are escalated anew with Tehran and its proxy groups in neighboring Iraq. Two months ago, Iran carried out a massive ballistic missile attack against American troops at a base in Iraq.

What else is happening:

  • Trump called it a "possibility" the U.S. could impose future domestic travel restrictions for areas where the virus hits hardest, such as California or Washington.
  • Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar issued a statement that had the ring of a political endorsement for Trump, praising his past move to restrict travel from China and his national coronavirus message on Wednesday night.
  • Congressional partisans remain at odds on reforming the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
  • Trump is backing a first-time candidate, Tommy Tuberville, against his former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a GOP primary in Alabama. It is said to be a crushing blow to Sessions' attempted comeback to the Senate.
  • Biden's primary win may signal an electoral threat to Trump in Michigan.
  • Plans for a rally in Tampa, Florida, later this month probably will be called off due to virus concerns, Trump said.

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