Trump Set Easter Target After Kushner Meeting, Seeing Empty Pews
(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump is determined to ease coronavirus restrictions on most Americans by the Easter holiday -- auspicious timing for his evangelical base and business allies but a worrisome deadline for public-health experts shaping the U.S. response to a still mushrooming outbreak.
Trump’s impatience to get everyone back to work set in almost immediately after he urged everyone to stay home -- touched off as he watched a sermon delivered by a prominent evangelical preacher to an empty megachurch. It gained momentum as Trump listened to advice from conservative economists who warned of near-apocalyptic financial damage, a view reinforced by a free-fall in markets.
And it coalesced around a single day, among the most sacred in the Christian calendar -- Easter Sunday, April 12 -- for reasons more symbolic than scientific after a key meeting headed by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner just four days after the stay-at-home advice.
Trump’s public-health advisers appear to have made some headway in softening his insistence on that single day -- “a beautiful time, a beautiful timeline,” as the president has called it -- but he largely remains undeterred.
Now, even with the total number of American cases surpassing the tally reported by China, members of the White House’s coronavirus task force are hastily preparing a menu of options for Trump to consider this weekend ahead of a planned announcement early next week, when the president’s 15-day social distancing guidelines will elapse.
Plan for Counties
Federal officials are considering a plan to rank U.S. counties as low, medium, or high risk, with the hope of providing state and local officials corresponding guidance for what distancing measures they should implement -- and which can be lifted and where.
“We’re going to listen to the very best health experts in the world, we’re going to examine that data very carefully, and we’ll be presenting, this weekend, the president a range of recommendations and additional guidance for going forward,” Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday. “The president has made it clear that, in his words, he wants to open the country up.”
The effort comes even as health officials warn the president’s timeline could be too ambitious, risking a spike in cases that would overwhelm hospital systems just barely handling their current case load. And Deborah Birx, the immunologist selected by Pence to lead the task force’s health analysis, said Thursday that the administration still needed to “get all of our data together” before granular recommendations could be made.
Trump gained new evidence in his push for an Easter revival after news Thursday that a record 3.3 million Americans had filed for unemployment.
“This is a country that was built on getting it done, and our people want to go back to work,” Trump said. “I’m hearing it loud and clear from everybody.”
It’s been less than two weeks since Trump backed away from his early reticence and acknowledged that coronavirus was a serious threat that required an unprecedented federal response. On March 16, he issued guidance asking Americans to spend 15 days avoiding public life -- and almost immediately, the concerns of those eager to reopen American business flooded in, according to people who requested anonymity to discuss internal White House deliberations.
The president -- who has heavily courted evangelicals while in office -- was already aware of the impact the restrictions were having on religious life. On March 15, he watched a livestream of a church service by evangelical pastor Jentezen Franklin, who was broadcasting a special sermon from his empty Georgia megachurch to mark Trump’s call for a national day of prayer because of the crisis.
“They’re going to show you that’s it’s just a bunch of empty seats,” Franklin said as he opened his sermon. “And like thousands and thousands of places of worship -- synagogues and churches and all kinds of places where people are worshiping -- they’re not there. The people are not there.”
A day later, the ramifications hit home. That Monday, first lady Melania Trump canceled the White House Easter egg roll for the first time in over a century -- a decision she called “difficult” and said she deeply regretted.
Meanwhile, White House officials grew increasingly nervous about the economic toll of the shutdown as markets saw the worst rout in decades. By mid-week, the president was querying advisers about the feasibility of opening things back up.
Aides within the West Wing circulated an article by Stanford Professor John Ioannidis arguing policymakers lacked sufficient data on coronavirus mortality rates, and warning that “locking down the world with potentially tremendous social and financial consequences may be totally irrational.”
“We don’t know how long social distancing measures and lockdowns can be maintained without major consequences to the economy, society, and mental health,” Ioannidis wrote. “Unpredictable evolutions may ensue, including financial crisis, unrest, civil strife, war, and a meltdown of the social fabric.”
Trump has largely echoed these concerns as he’s signaled his desire to reopen the country, saying that financial hardship could lead to depression and suicide among Americans exceeding even the numbers killed by coronavirus.
That instinct was only reinforced as the president -- who even on normal days watches a lot of cable news -- flipped around the dial as panels of commentators fretted about the economic impact of the coronavirus restrictions.
On the afternoon of March 20, Anthony Fauci -- the widely respected head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases -- appeared on just such a Fox News show.
The interview was a mop-up effort for the doctor after a White House press conference earlier in the day. Fauci drew widespread attention after he appeared to hide his face when Trump mocked the State Department as the “Deep State Department” and subsequently seemed to contradict the president’s optimism over experimental treatments for coronavirus.
Fauci downplayed the apparent split, and anchor Bill Hemmer then pivoted, asking Fauci -- who attended Jesuit high school and college -- what he thought about the idea of an Easter reopening.
“Can you say whether or not we’ll have a great Easter Sunday -- an American resurrection -- on that date?” Hemmer asked.
Fauci demurred, saying the country needed to be “prepared to modify behavior even when it involves things that are very close to our heart.”
Small Business Call
But shortly after the interview aired, Trump joined a conference call also on March 20 with thousands of small business owners who raised concern about how they had limited capacity to ride out the closures forced by the response to the coronavirus.
That same day, White House advisers Kushner, economist Kevin Hassett, and some of the public health officials gathered to begin discussing how to reopen the economy.
As the group discussed how to reopen the economy, the idea was floated to pick a day and work backward. It was then that Easter was first brought up as a possible target date, though officials also discussed the possibility of only lifting restrictions on certain geographic areas or demographic groups.
Hassett, who had departed the White House but was brought back to help advise on the coronavirus recovery effort, warned that Easter could be too late in terms of damage to the economy.
Momentum for announcing an Easter return date only built over the weekend.
Stephen Moore, a conservative economist and an ally of Trump, said he was on a conference call Sunday afternoon with the White House and about a dozen business leaders, many of whom are retired. On that call, they urged Trump to set and communicate a date to Americans to reopen the country. Moore said the Easter date was tossed out.
‘Economic Resurrection Day’
“All but maybe one or two of the 12 or so people on the call were saying we’ve got to urge the president to go to the country to have some kind of date certain to have the economy up and running again because the devastation is too severe,” Moore said in an interview.
Moore added that he suggested the “terminology” of declaring Easter an “economic resurrection day” during the call.
“I think there is a kind of important symbolic importance of that date,” he said. “It’s a date everyone knows, everyone has their eye on Easter. It’s an appropriate time. We’d have had our economy shut down for a month, that’s a long time.”
By Sunday evening, Trump appeared resolved on announcing some end date for the virus restrictions, posting an all-caps tweet that echoed commentary by Fox News host Steve Hilton.
“You know that famous phrase, the cure is worse than the disease?” Hilton said. “That is exactly the territory we are hurtling towards. You think it’s just the coronavirus that kills people? This total economic shutdown will kill people.”
Trump disclosed the Easter plans on Tuesday during a “virtual town hall” hosted by Hemmer in the White House Rose Garden.
“I would love to have that -- it’s such an important day for other reasons, but I’ll make it an important day for this too,” Trump said. “I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter.”
Hemmer responded with surprise, but then echoed his remarks from the week prior, saying it would be “a great American resurrection.”
“That’s very good,” Trump replied.
Holding to Timeline
Some members of the president’s team cautioned he should not be held to the deadline, with senior adviser Kellyanne Conway on Thursday calling the target merely “an example” of when things could open back up by.
“The president has set April 12 as an aspirational goal,” Fauci said Thursday in an interview with National Public Radio. “He knows, and we discussed this with him -- that you have to be very flexible in that. And he will be flexible. He put that out because he wanted to give some hope to people. But he is not absolutely wedded to that.”
The president’s task force has raced to give him an announcement he can make within his timeline. The contours of the White House’s plan to reopen took shape in a Thursday teleconference between the president and state governors hosted from the Situation Room at the White House.
The idea, according to administration officials, was to rank counties according to their coronavirus risk determined by a nationwide surveillance testing system. The idea would be that areas where the virus appeared widespread -- such as New York City -- would continue aggressive mitigation efforts.
But other areas, like Midwestern towns where few cases had been observed, might be able to return to normal operations, because public health officials could isolate and trace individuals with the virus. The system is based in part on the one used in sub-Saharan Africa to track and contain HIV.
The president said he made the Easter decision because it “would be a beautiful time” that “happened to arrive” within the timeline he had already been discussing. Trump said his team had been considering an earlier date but he liked the Easter symbolism.
“That’s a very special day,” Trump said. “And what a great timeline this would be.”
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.