Senate Republicans spent a month developing a coronavirus relief bill that their conference could unify around and go on record as supporting to show voters they were trying to help families and businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But as the messaging vote arrived Thursday, Republicans couldn’t talk to reporters about Democrats blocking their bill — which fell short on a 52-47 procedural vote with only one GOP senator in opposition — without also having to dodge or defend President Donald Trump’s latest folly.
Washington’s press corps was still consumed with news that broke the day before about Trump admitting to journalist Bob Woodward back in February that COVID-19 “is deadly stuff” and then in March that he was intentionally understating the danger of the novel coronavirus in his public comments.
“I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic,” the president told Woodward.
The Washington Post released audio of the comments Wednesday as part of a story previewing Woodward’s new book “Rage.” Trump, when asked at the White House later that day if he had misled the public to avoid panic, conceded he did.
“I think if you said ‘in order to reduce panic,’ perhaps that’s so,” he said. “The fact is, I’m a cheerleader for this country, I love our country, and I don’t want people to be frightened. I don’t want to create panic, as you say.”
Democrats seized on the revelation, saying it was further evidence that the president didn’t do enough, especially in the early months, to combat the virus. Senate Republicans largely dodged questions about Woodward’s reporting, although several defended Trump’s handling of COVID-19.
“I’m more concerned about the actions that were actually taken to address the crisis,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune told reporters. “And I believe that the White House has worked with the Congress … to get assistance out there, which is why I think the economy is performing better and you’re seeing a lot of the progress that we are seeing here.”
‘It takes away …’
Regardless of the interpretation of Trump’s comments, it was another reminder of the influence the president and his rhetoric has over the news cycle. Congress has always struggled to communicate to voters what it’s doing but never more so than during the Trump era. Both Republicans and Democrats readily admit his comments can be a distraction from the policy Washington is debating.
“I do think, in general, that there is an accumulation from when you’re having to maybe explain what you said, it takes away from the essence of what you’re trying to do,” Indiana GOP Sen. Mike Braun said Thursday on MSNBC.
To that end, Trump held a news conference Thursday afternoon in which he sought to paint a narrative that, based on his administration’s actions, the economy is starting to recover from the pandemic and that it’s safe for students to go back to school. But the president strayed from his own message at times to launch attacks at Democratic rival Joe Biden before fielding questions from reporters about what he told Woodward.
Any hopes of Trump sticking to a positive message about what the administration and Republicans were doing to help Americans get through the pandemic were dashed as soon as he opened the news conference to questions and an ABC News reporter asked him why he lied to the American people.
“Such a terrible question and the phraseology,” Trump responded. “I didn’t lie. What I said is ‘We have to be calm. We can’t be panicked.’”
The news conference quickly devolved into a back-and-forth between a few reporters and Trump over his motives for not being more transparent about what he knew about the virus.
Trump said Democrats like Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi also showed little alarm over COVID-19 in the early months of the year.
“Obviously, outwardly, I said it’s a very serious problem,” he said. “And it’s always a serious problem. That doesn’t mean I’m going to jump up and down in the air and start saying, ‘People are going to die, people are going to die.’ No. I’m not going to do that.”
No mention of Senate GOP effort
Missing from the president’s message was any mention of the Senate GOP’s largely unified vote Thursday or an amplification of their message that Democrats are not interested in compromising even on issues on which there’s some bipartisan agreement.
Trump did get in a quick attack on that front a few hours later when reporters traveling with him to a Michigan rally asked about the stalled congressional negotiations.
“Nancy Pelosi and [Senate Minority Leader Charles E.] Schumer don’t want to pass a stimulus bill because they think that helps me in the election,” he said. “I don’t think it helps me at all. We are prepared to pass stimulus for people that need it.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has avoided engaging in commentary on Trump’s latest comments — the Woodward book excerpts came in the wake of a news storm over a story in The Atlantic that alleged Trump made disparaging comments about war veterans — and stayed focused on his effort to boost Republicans’ standing in the coronavirus relief stalemate.
“Are Democrats really going to refuse to fund K-12 schools and child care in a pandemic because they’re afraid Republicans might get some credit?” the Kentucky Republican asked in a floor speech before Thursday’s vote. “They’re going to vote against finding and distributing vaccines because they are afraid the breakthrough that our nation is praying for might possibly help President Trump?”
Democrats, meanwhile, touted their unity in voting against the GOP bill, with Schumer and Pelosi both arguing it was an “emaciated” measure that did not address the scale of the crisis.
“McConnell is being his cynical self by saying, ‘I’ll just put something [out] there that will look like we’re trying to do something while we ignore the needs of the American people,’” Pelosi said at her weekly news conference.
Pelosi managed to avoid questions about Trump and the Woodward book at the Thursday presser after an MSNBC appearance a day earlier in which that was almost all she was asked about. Pelosi was able to change the topic to coronavirus relief briefly enough to slam the Senate GOP effort as a “check-the-box” political stunt.
Not worried about distraction
Republican senators, for the most part, said they weren’t worried about Trump distracting from their effort to pass COVID-19 relief.
“I think that’s what the American people are focused on,” Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham said he thinks the revelations from the Woodward book about Trump’s response to COVID-19 are actually more helpful than harmful for GOP messaging.
“I think now you can compare and contrast with what Biden was going to do and what Trump actually did,” the South Carolina Republican said. “Biden criticized Trump for stopping people from China coming to the United States. That was one of the best decisions he ever made. So the president acted decisively, but publicly he was trying to reassure people. I think that was the right approach.”
After the messaging vote Thursday, several senators expressed doubt that there’d be a bipartisan deal on COVID-19 relief before the election.
“My guess is, as of now, unless Pelosi changes her mind and talks to the White House, there’s not going to be anything done, and it’s sad,” Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa said.
That’s why Republicans felt it was important to vote on their so-called skinny bill. Unlike the House, which passed a $3.4 trillion aid bill in May, the Senate had not voted on another round of relief since the handful of earlier bipartisan measures were enacted.
“Along with the pandemic of COVID-19, we have a pandemic of politics,” retiring Kansas GOP Sen. Pat Roberts said. “So, you got to do what you got to do. So we at least have 52 votes to say this is a targeted bill. More to come later and as needed.”
Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.