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Trump Had Said He Hoped To Reopen The Country By Easter. That Didn't Happen

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It is Easter Sunday in the time of our pandemic. Churches are largely empty. And that goes for St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, as we'll hear in a few minutes. People are being discouraged from gathering. So priests and pastors are holding remote services. And friends and family who may normally get together for brunch or a ham dinner - well, they're making do and trying to keep a safe distance. That goes for our friend NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson as well. She joins us now but from her home. Good morning.

(LAUGHTER)

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It was just 2 1/2 weeks ago that President Trump said it would be beautiful to have packed churches on Easter. Obviously, that did not come to pass. Has his communication about the pandemic gotten any more realistic or reliable since then?

LIASSON: The briefings are still a real roller coaster, lots of contradictions and confusion. But what's interesting is that the briefings themselves have become controversial inside the Republican Party. There are members of Congress, Republicans, who are saying these briefings are not helping Trump. Even The Wall Street Journal editorial page - pretty reliably conservative outlet - had an editorial headlined "Trump's Wasted Briefings." That made the president pretty mad. And he tweeted that The Wall Street Journal was fake news and that it forgot to mention the very high ratings he gets.

But it sounds like the president's Republican allies can't convince him that, sometimes, less is more, despite the fact that the briefings don't seem to be improving his standing with the public. His approval ratings have slipped a little bit. That being said, there was no briefing yesterday. And there probably won't be one today because it's Easter.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what do you make of the push and pull we see, day after day, of the public health officials saying we can't let up on social distancing yet and the president, who is clearly and understandably very eager to get the country back to work?

LIASSON: Yes. He says this is going to be the biggest decision of his life. He is pulled between political advisors and corporate leaders who tell him he needs to open up the economy soon and public health experts that say, if you open it too soon, more people will die. But if you open it too late, there'll be an economic catastrophe that could not only cost millions of people their livelihoods but also imperil the president's reelection chances. And, you know, experts say that you need about 750,000 tests a week to be able to open up the economy safely to find out who's infected and who's not.

And our own Franco Ordoñez asked the president if he accepts that number. And the president's answer was, do you need it? No. Is it a nice thing to do? Yes. So it doesn't sound like he's going to wait around to get that kind of testing capacity.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to get your read on two tweets posted recently, one from Trump announcing a hundred ventilators for Colorado after Senator Cory Gardner requested them, and the other from Arizona Senator Martha McSally saying her call to Trump got a hundred machines promised to her state.

LIASSON: Right. Those are two Republican senators, incumbents up for reelection. Both of them are endangered. They're trailing their Democratic opponents. And the president wants to help them. He wants them to take the credit for getting the equipment to their states, even though it was the governor who got them. And in some ways, that's just transparent politics as usual. Where it gets more controversial is to the extent that he's being accused of turning the fight against the pandemic into a political football.

You know, Democratic governors have accused the White House of playing favorites. They say, for instance, that Florida, a super important battleground state with a Republican governor, gets everything it asks for. Meanwhile, Democratic governors get told by the president that they're asking for more than they really need.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's go to the election because there is one coming. And on Thursday, Joe Biden said he wanted to expand access to Medicare and forgive some student debt. Is it shifting to the left? Is it the Sanders effect?

LIASSON: It is the Sanders effect. He said that he would let people buy - sign up for Medicare at age 60. And he would forgive some student debt. What he's doing is carefully reaching out to the progressive wing of the party in a way that he hopes does not alienate modern - moderate suburban voters. He already had adopted Elizabeth Warren's bankruptcy proposal, for instance. So he's trying to do a careful dance to unify the party. He hasn't gone so far as to embrace mandatory "Medicare for All." That's the Sanders proposal that would put everyone on a government health care plan and do away with private insurance. And what's interesting to me is that Bernie Sanders is not demanding that he do that. So it tells you, I think, that the Democratic Party is unifying a little bit more easily and earlier than it did in 2016 or even 2008.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thank you so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.