Trump ratchets up coronavirus battle with European travel ban

By Gabby Orr

President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced a 30-day ban on foreign visitors from most of Europe in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus — ratcheting up his administration’s response after battling criticism for previously downplaying the crisis.

In a rare address from the Oval Office, Trump said the European Union had “failed to take the same precautions” as the U.S. had implemented to contain the coronavirus outbreak, prompting his decision to temporarily suspend travel between the two continents. The restrictions will not apply to the United Kingdom, where the number of confirmed cases topped 400 on Wednesday.

“We made a life-saving move with early action on China. Now we must take the same action with Europe,” Trump said in an 11-minute televised address, referencing his February move to restrict travel from China, where the virus began. “Smart action today will prevent the spread of the virus tomorrow.”

The address marked a dramatic shift in messaging for Trump, who has spent weeks vowing that the coronavirus would die down quickly, pledging that a vaccine was coming soon and insisting that it was similar to the seasonal flu — all assertions his own health officials have contradicted repeatedly.

But Wednesday night, Trump chose as his backdrop the Oval Office, a location usually used to deliver somber or momentous news. It's the location John F. Kennedy chose to tell the nation about the Cuban Missile Crisis, the place Ronald Reagan picked to discuss the Challenger explosion and the setting for George W. Bush to calm a nation on September 11, 2001.

It was the second time Trump had made such a prime time address — his previous Oval Office speech came during the 2019 government shutdown, and he used the occasion to sell the public on his controversial effort to build a southern border wall.

This time, Trump blamed travelers from Europe for bringing coronavirus to the U.S. “A number of new clusters in the United States were seeded by travelers from Europe,“ he said.

And his speech did still generate some confusion.

After Trump finished his remarks, the Department of Homeland Security clarified that the new order would not bar all travelers from Europe, just foreign nationals traveling from Europe to the U.S. The order also doesn't prohibit the travel of legal permanent residents and the immediate family members of U.S. citizens.

The guidance does apply, however, to people transporting cargo from Europe, the White House told POLITICO. Still, goods and cargo will be permitted to enter the U.S., another statement that needed clarification after Trump was finished.

Trump also addressed some expected economic measures during his speech, saying he would “soon be taking an emergency action” to provide a financial cushion to business owners and individuals hit by the coronavirus. He said the Small Business Administration would provide emergency capital to impacted companies, and vowed to defer tax payments for certain entities that have been hit by the virus.

The president then asked Congress to include a paid sick-leave mandate and payroll tax cut in a stimulus package that is currently being ironed out on Capitol Hill. While lawmakers have coalesced around the sick-leave proposal, the payroll tax cut has been a harder sell.

Always aware of the markets, Trump was careful to avoid dire language as he talked about the economy, which he and congressional Republicans have routinely cited as a major accomplishment as they campaign for reelection.

“This is not a financial crisis. This is just a temporary moment of time that we will overcome as a nation and as a world,” Trump said, adding that the U.S. economy is well positioned to withstand the impacts of the virus because “our banks and financial institutions are fully capitalized and incredibly strong.”

Yet anxious investors were unmoved, as Dow futures fell after Trump's speech.

Overall, Trump did adopt a more solemn tone during his address, a change for a president who, as recently as Monday, compared the rapidly spreading virus to the common flu and tweeted that “nothing is shut down, life and the economy go on.”

The comparison to the flu was the latest in a series of inaccurate comments Trump has made about the virus as the number of confirmed U.S. cases has climbed over 1,000. Often, his public statements have contradicted top U.S. officials and Cabinet secretaries who have encouraged Americans — particularly older adults and those with chronic health conditions — to take the outbreak more seriously.

On Wednesday, Trump said all elderly individuals should cancel “nonessential travel in crowded areas” to reduce their risk of exposure to the virus.

“Every community faces different risks and it is critical for you to follow the guidelines of your local officials,” he said.

The president’s warning came hours after two U.S. officials testified on Capitol Hill that the worst is yet to come, and suggested that Americans should brace for further disruptions to their daily lives such as school closures, travel bans and cancellations of large gatherings.

In two surprising developments Wednesday night, the National Basketball Association suspended all games until further notice after one player tested positive for the coronavirus, and actor Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, announced they had both contracted the virus.

And the virus appeared to grip the nation’s capital ever more tightly. A staffer in Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell's D.C. office contracted coronavirus, marking the first known case on Capitol Hill. And at the Justice Department, employees received notice that there was a potential case at the agency. Over at the White House, public tours of the building were canceled.

“We have got to assume it is going to get worse and worse and worse,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force, at a congressional hearing earlier Wednesday.

Fauci’s testimony was validated hours later when the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, triggering a swift decline in U.S. markets and prompting Trump to schedule his televised address.

In Europe, Italy has suffered the most with over 10,000 cases. The country suspended most of its commercial activity on Wednesday as it essentially asked its population to shelter in place. Elsewhere in Europe, France, Spain and Germany all have over 1,000 cases.

China remains the hardest hit, with over 80,000 cases and upwards of 3,000 deaths. South Korea and Iran have also seen massive outbreaks, and Trump placed travel restrictions on both countries.

Hours after the pandemic declaration, Trump announced his plans to address the nation about the deadly virus — a move that put some officials inside the administration on edge, given the president’s attention-grabbing comments so far.

One administration official suggested Trump could “kiss a second term goodbye” if he failed to strike a more serious tone about the coronavirus outbreak that has already infected several hundred Americans and could impact a significant chunk of the U.S. population, according to epidemiologists who have been closely tracking the virus.

Even before Trump addressed the nation, his decision to deliver an Oval Office address alerted aides and lawmakers to a possible change in his approach.

One White House official said the president’s concerns about containment and public safety rose significantly on Tuesday, when several elite colleges — including Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — announced that classes would be moved online and students should refrain from returning to campus at the conclusion of spring break.

News coverage of the nationwide quarantine in Italy, where the virus has continued to spread uncontrollably and overwhelmed the country’s health care system, also unnerved the president, the same official said.

As concerns about public safety and worsening economic conditions accelerated inside the West Wing on Wednesday, Trump tried to strike a positive tone on Twitter: “America is the Greatest Country in the world… together we are putting into policy a plan to prevent, detect, treat and create a vaccine against Coronavirus to save lives in America and the world. America will get it done!”

Sacramento’s arena empties out after the NBA game between the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings was postponed at the last minute in California on Wednesday. The NBA suspended its season indefinitely.

In the same breath, however, Trump criticized congressional Democrats who spent much of Wednesday working to cobble together an economic stimulus package they could send to the Senate by the end of the week.

The administration has urged lawmakers to take swift action after watching the coronavirus outbreak crush investor confidence and put the U.S. economy on the precipice of a recession this week. But Democrats and some Republicans have pushed back on the president’s proposals, including his demand for a payroll tax holiday. Opponents claim it would provide little to no financial assistance to hourly workers who either cannot go into work due to illness or end up facing layoffs because of the impact the virus has on industries.

“Someone needs to tell the Democrats in Congress that CoronaVirus doesn’t care what party you are in,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

The combination of mounting economic concerns and questions about the federal government’s emergency preparedness has posed one of the gravest threats yet to Trump’s quest for reelection.

For months, the president’s 2020 campaign has relied on rising wages, low unemployment and a steady economic expansion to make the case to voters that Trump has been good for their pocketbooks and can do even more with another four years in office. Now the coronavirus outbreak has threatened to upend that message, while putting Trump’s every move under a microscope as he works to contain a novel virus about which much remains unknown.

Trump even made his first concession to his campaign schedule on Wednesday night, canceling upcoming events in Nevada and Colorado. Previously, Trump had refused to follow the lead of his two remaining Democratic challengers, who both axed rallies. Until late Wednesday, Trump had still been scheduled to participate in a fundraiser in Las Vegas, host a rally in Denver, Colo., and speak to the Republican Jewish Coalition between Thursday and Saturday.

“Out of an abundance of caution from the coronavirus outbreak, the president has decided to cancel his upcoming events in Colorado and Nevada," said White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham.

Caitlin Oprysko, Meridith McGraw and David Lim contributed to this report.