Trump harnesses wartime powers and signs coronavirus legislation

President Trump speaks with nurses representatives in the Cabinet Room
President Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the Cabinet Room of the White House during a meeting with representatives of American nurses on Wednesday.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

President Trump on Wednesday invoked wartime powers that could boost the manufacturing of medical equipment used to fight the coronavirus pandemic, as hospitals braced for a nationwide explosion of infections and Congress rushed to pass emergency legislation to keep the country’s economy on life support.

The Senate passed a measure — already approved by the House — to provide free testing and expand sick leave for Americans, and Trump signed it just hours later. With the stock market plummeting and layoffs mounting, lawmakers are already working on the next package of proposals, expected to top $1 trillion, including aid to struggling industries and individual checks to most taxpayers.

Trump also ordered a halt to evictions from public housing for those affected by the coronavirus, and to foreclosures for homeowners who have mortgages backed by the federal government.


The emergency steps came as the country continues to lock down in hopes of slowing the spread of the coronavirus. The U.S. restricted its border with Canada and is preparing new limitations on migrants entering from Mexico.

The cascading announcements came as the Trump administration faces waves of criticism for moving too slowly and timidly to blunt the pandemic, which originated in China and has since spread around the globe. More than 7,700 infections and 118 deaths have been confirmed in the United States.

By signing a declaration under the Defense Production Act, Trump can direct private industries to churn out protective masks and gowns for hospital workers, as well as ventilators needed to keep critically ill patients alive. He said he’ll use the powers only if necessary, but healthcare officials have repeatedly warned that stockpiles of medical equipment could be wiped out as coronavirus-related infections mount.

“There’s never been an instance like this where no matter what you have, it’s not enough,” Trump said at the White House, where he’s been leading daily briefings on the pandemic. Trump said the federal government has “massive numbers of ventilators.” Vice President Mike Pence pegged the number at 10,000. Experts predict there won’t be enough.

The Defense Production Act dates to the Korean War, and more recently it’s been used to ensure a steady supply of ballistic material for body armor and armor plating for vehicles. At the news conference where he announced he would invoke the authority, Trump described himself as a “wartime president” and compared the mobilization to fight the coronavirus to World War II.


“Now it’s our time,” he said, recalling how workers in the 1940s slept on factory floors to keep production lines moving for military hardware. “We must sacrifice together because we’re all in this together.”

The coronavirus is primarily a threat to the elderly and those with underlying health problems, but there are new signs that young people remain vulnerable.

Dr. Deborah Birx, who is coordinating the federal government’s response to the coronavirus, warned Wednesday that “there are concerning reports coming out of France and Italy about some young people getting seriously ill and very seriously ill in the ICUs.”

She repeated her appeals to young people to stop eating out or gathering in public places, both to keep themselves safe and to avoid spreading the virus to older people.

First Lady Melania Trump and top health officials will appear in nationally broadcast public service announcements to talk about how Americans can avoid contracting and spreading the virus, the White House announced Wednesday.

The latest legislation approved by the Senate and signed by Trump enacts paid sick leave for more American workers, helping people stay home rather than risk spreading the virus. The measure, the second to be passed by Congress in response to the pandemic, also boosts funding for food programs and unemployment benefits.


“There’s a great bipartisan effort going on that I haven’t really seen before to this extent,” Trump said.

Thomas Donohue, the chief executive of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said his organization “applauds congressional leaders for moving quickly to pass a strong, bipartisan coronavirus response package that will provide immediate relief to American workers and families during this unprecedented time.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said his caucus was continuing to work with the White House on a third stimulus package, which is expected to top $1 trillion.

“Republicans hope shortly to have a consolidated position along with the administration,” he said. “And then we intend to sit down with our Democratic colleagues and see what we can agree to.”

McConnell added: “Just how long it will take to get through these steps is unclear. But as everyone knows, we are moving rapidly because the situation demands it.”

The centerpiece of the third measure would be two rounds of $250-billion payments to Americans to help make up for lost wages and provide some spending money, according to a Treasury Department outline obtained by the Washington Post and others.


It’s unclear who would be eligible for payments or how much they would be, but some Republican senators have floated $1,000 as a starting point.

The Treasury outline includes $300 billion in loans for businesses with 500 employees or fewer. Companies would be eligible as long as they continue paying employees for eight weeks.

The federal government would also provide $50 billion in loans to the airline industry, which has seen disruptions to its business greater than after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and an additional $150 billion for other “severely distressed sectors.”

“We are looking at different numbers,” Trump said at the White House briefing. “Everyone seems to want to go big.”

The numbers are comparable to legislation approved during the Great Recession, when Congress approved a $700-billion bailout for banks in 2008 and an $800-billion stimulus package in 2009.

Senate Democrats have already outlined their own proposals totaling $750 billion, including a massive investment in public health infrastructure such as hospital beds and equipment, funding child care for healthcare workers battling the pandemic, and boosting unemployment insurance.


Even as Washington scrambles to tackle the coronavirus, the economy continued lurching toward a recession. The stock market has lost virtually all gains since Trump took office more than three years ago, and the country’s three largest automakers reportedly decided to pause construction of new vehicles. Restaurants, bookstores and coffee shops are shedding workers as customers followed the government’s advice to stay home to avoid contracting the coronavirus, and more layoffs were expected.

“There is something much worse about this crisis that we face. I have never sensed a greater sense of uncertainty, a greater fear of the future, of the unknown,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. “We don’t know how long this crisis will last.”

Times staff writers Noah Bierman, Liam Dillon and Don Lee contributed to this report.