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Week In Politics: Multiple White House Staffers Test Positive For Coronavirus

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

As the days go by, it can be hard to keep track of just how long we've been in lockdown. In California, the first state to issue stay-at-home orders, it's been almost eight weeks. But parts of the country are now taking the first steps towards reopening even as the number of corona cases continues to rise in some places, including the White House. Joining me now to talk about this is NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning. Happy Mother's Day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thank you very much. Happy Mother's Day to you, too.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We have heard about Vice President Pence's press secretary Katie Miller testing positive for the coronavirus. Of course, she is the wife of senior adviser Stephen Miller. One of the president's personal valets also tested positive, as did Ivanka Trump's assistant. And now some prominent public health officials are self-quarantining because of exposure. What does that tell you?

LIASSON: It tells you it's hard to stay safe. Testing can tell you if you have the disease, but it can't prevent you from getting it. And you're right. Infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, the CDC Director Robert Redfield and FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn have all decided to do some level of self-quarantining because they came into contact with someone who had it.

And at the same time, you know that the White House has testing all the time, but most people who are being asked to go back to work or go to the grocery store do not have tests available. And we see the president deciding not to model social distancing. He doesn't wear a mask, even this past week where he met with a group of elderly veterans from World War II - all of them over 95 years old - who were in Washington to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, speaking of testing, President Trump seems pretty ambivalent about it. Here he is last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The media likes to say we have the most cases, but we do, by far, the most testing. If we did very little testing, we wouldn't have the most cases. So in a way, by doing all of this testing, we make ourselves look bad.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So if the president throws cold water on the usefulness of testing, what kind of message does that send?

LIASSON: Well, it's ambivalent. Governors and other workplaces don't know quite what they should do with testing. But once again, I think it shows you that the president is at odds with public health experts who say massive testing and then contact tracing is the key to allowing you to decide who is sick and should stay home and who is not sick and can go back to work.

I think what this also shows is that the president is making a pivot. He seems to be moving away from his role as a wartime leader fighting the pandemic to becoming a cheerleader for reopening and rebuilding the economy. That's something that's very important to him. He wants that economy to rebound. He needs a good economy to run for reelection. He's even branded his new role. He calls it transitioning to greatness.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, everyone wants the economy to rebound. It's caused untold destruction in people's lives. But he can't just wave a magic wand. And how does the president open the economy in a situation like this?

LIASSON: Well, that is a really good question. You know, Dr. Fauci said famously, you don't make the timeline; the virus makes the timeline. And the president has left the decisions on reopening mostly to individual states. The White House decided not to provide any detailed recommendations on how to open or how much testing to do. Even the general guidelines that they put out about how states shouldn't reopen until they've seen a certain decrease in the number of cases and deaths - states aren't following those. And the president, as I said, needs a rebounding economy. But we saw those job numbers on Friday - 14.7% unemployment. That's the worst...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah.

LIASSON: ...Since the Great Depression.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, it is such an unprecedented situation. Is the public going to blame the president for the economy?

LIASSON: That's a good question. We don't know that. It is - so far, he still gets higher numbers than Joe Biden for handling the economy, although overall, he is running behind Biden in the national popular vote polls in key battleground states and with key voting groups like independents and seniors. He's working hard to convince voters that none of this is his fault.

What we do know is that incumbents usually win reelection unless there's a recession, when they usually lose. And Donald Trump is - has broken rules before. He's defied history, and he is trying to be the first candidate to win reelection in the teeth of a deep recession. I think voters are going to judge him on his leadership during the pandemic but also on whether he has a plan to rebuild a shattered economy.

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

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