Trump blames spike in COVID cases on protests, increased travel and cases from Mexico

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump returned to the White House podium Wednesday for the second day in a row as Congress remained split over what to include in the next big coronavirus relief package.

Senate Republicans are weighing whether to temporarily extend the additional $600 millions of Americans received on top of their weekly unemployment benefits to assist with the economic fallout from the pandemic – one of several issues stalling negotiations. Lawmakers acknowledge they’re unlikely to pass a new bill before the unemployment benefits expire on July 31, spilling into Congress’ month-long August recess. 

The president sidestepped a question about whether he’ll support the short-term extension, telling reporters: “I think ultimately something good will come out of it.”

His comments came a day after he said GOP lawmakers are looking at a formula to replace the employee insurance with about “70% of the amount” in the next round of aid, admitting he was initially against the extra injection of cash and calling it a “lifeline” for Americans. 

GOP lawmakers argue the extra $600 means that some Americans make more money on unemployment, which becomes a disincentive for many to return to work. Democrats and others point to the still alarmingly high unemployment rate and argue that slashing the benefits could be dire for families who need them.

Trump used his second appearance in the White House briefing room to blame a summer surge in coronavirus cases across country on holiday gatherings such as Memorial Day, nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died at the hands of police, a substantial increase in travel as well as the country’s border with Mexico, a country he said was struggling with pandemic. 

“There are likely a number of causes for the spike in infections. Cases started to rise among young Americans shortly after demonstrations, which you know very well about, which presumably triggered a broader relaxation of mitigation efforts nationwide,” he told reporters. 

“We’re also sharing a 2000 mile border with Mexico as we know very well and cases are surging in Mexico. … it’s a big problem for Mexico but cases are surging very sharply and all across the rest of the Western Hemisphere. “

Republicans have failed to rally around a cohesive plan, with some dismissing Trump’s renewed push for a payroll tax cut and others balking at a price tag that could exceed $1 trillion. Trump told Fox News’ Chris Wallace in an interview that aired Sunday that he may not sign a relief package into law if it doesn’t include a payroll tax cut. Critics say a payroll tax cut does little to assist the millions made jobless by the pandemic. 

The White House has deployed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Mark Meadows, Trump’s acting chief of staff, to Capitol Hill to meet with congressional leaders this week to hash out the contours of the next relief bill. 

“My team is also working night and day with Capitol Hill to advance the next economic relief package. We’re working very hard on it,” Trump told reporters Tuesday. “I also know that both sides want to get it done.”

Since the outbreak first hit, the U.S. Congress and the White House have approved more than $3 trillion in aid, passing a series of bills that provided loans and grants to businesses hurt by the pandemic, relief checks to Americans, expanded unemployment for laid-off workers and funds for increased testing and vaccine research. 

Trump appears before reporters for a second time this week as he attempts to hit the reset button amid criticism of his administration’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. Surges across the country have led to 10 states setting seven-day records for new cases while five states saw a record number of deaths over that period, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins data through late Tuesday.  

The president continues to face questions on his handling of the pandemic as his sinking poll numbers have showed him trailing his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, in several battleground states ahead of November. 

In the weeks since the last series of briefings in March and April, Trump has opted to put a positive spin on the country’s coronavirus crisis, touting the expansion of U.S. testing, despite lags in results, and pressuring schools to reopen in the fall as part of a wider effort to revive the economy. 

But he appeared to reverse course on Tuesday, conceding that the pandemic “will likely unfortunately get worse before it gets better” and encouraging Americans to wear a mask – a federal health guideline he has repeatedly flouted until a visit to Walter Reed hospital earlier this month. 

Despite his about-face on the severity of the pandemic during his prepared remarks, Trump appeared to shrug off the pandemic as part of his legacy while fielding questions from reporters. 

When asked whether he wants the American people to judge him in November on how he’s handled the pandemic, the president said: “This, among other things.”

“I think the American people will judge us on this, but they’ll judge us on the economy that I created and that already we’re creating,” he added, before repeating his assertion that the virus will eventually “disappear.” 

Contributing: Michael Collins, Christal Hayes

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