The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits has soared to more than 30 million in just six weeks of the coronavirus crisis, the Labor Department said Thursday, while President Trump blamed the economic misery on China and predicted a “very strong comeback” by the time he faces reelection in November.
More than 3.8 million people filed claims for jobless benefits last week, down slightly from the previous week but still a staggering number that had officials predicting April’s unemployment rate will climb to nearly 20%. In February, before the pandemic forced business closings and stay-at-home orders, the jobless rate was 3.5%.
The most rapid series of layoffs in U.S. history has now hit more than one in six American workers.
Consumer spending plunged 7.5% in March, the most since the Commerce Department began tracking it in 1959. It was more than triple the previous record monthly decline of 2.1%, in January 1987.
The president said of the latest jobless report, “It is what it is.”
“It’s just a very tough situation for the people of our country,” Mr. Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “We just got hit by a vicious virus that should never have been allowed to escape China. They should have stopped it at the source.”
The coronavirus, which has killed more than 62,000 Americans, originated in Wuhan, China, late last year. In an interview with Reuters this week, Mr. Trump said Beijing “will do anything they can to make me lose this race” to presumptive Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden in November.
Asked if he believes China allowed the virus to spread intentionally, the president told reporters Thursday, “They could have done it. They either … couldn’t [stop] it from a competency standpoint, or they let it spread.”
“They stopped planes from going to China, but they didn’t stop the planes and the traffic from coming into the United States and from coming into all over Europe,” the president said.
White House secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Thursday, “Why would China want to reelect a president that finally had the courage to go toe to toe [with them]? He just is noting the fact China would like to see someone else in this position.”
Mr. Biden called the latest jobless numbers “a national economic disaster.”
The former vice president blamed Mr. Trump, referring to press reports that the president allegedly ignored intelligence warnings in January about the looming spread of the disease.
“Either Trump didn’t read his [presidential daily brief], which is inexcusable, or worse, he knew this was a threat and he made a conscious choice to ignore the warnings, downplay the threat, and endanger thousands of American lives and millions of jobs,” Mr. Biden said in a statement.
Mr. Trump pointed to a statement by the director of National Intelligence’s office Thursday saying that the “entire Intelligence Community has been consistently providing critical support to U.S. policymakers” about COVID-19.”
The statement didn’t disclose any details about what the president was told or when. But Mr. Trump said it proved he was blameless.
“They did say I was given a briefing when I said I was given it, not before,” the president said. “They also said it was not specific and it was not a ‘panic’ briefing. It was in later January. The news was totally, as usual, fake and corrupt. The report turned out to be exactly as I said.”
Mr. Biden said the administration “should have been using January and February to prepare ourselves, to put in place a plan for testing and containment so we wouldn’t have to resort to these extreme social distancing measures that have put our economy into a free fall.”
“Trump didn’t do that, and now we’re all paying the price,” he said.
Mr. Biden also said the president should fly the flag atop the White House at half-staff out of respect for the victims of the pandemic. The president responded, “I would not mind doing that. I think lowering the flags would be something very appropriate.
“I don’t think that anybody can feel any worse than I do about all the death and destruction that’s so needless,” the president said.
Mr. Trump, who hosted Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey in the Oval Office Thursday, defended his response, pointing to about 6 million tests conducted and thousands of ventilators manufactured and delivered to hospitals.
“We’re very proud of the job we’ve done,” he said.
Mr. Murphy came to the White House seeking more federal aid in the next round of emergency pandemic relief. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that Democrats want $1 trillion for states and municipalities that have been hit hard by the coronavirus.
But Mr. Trump said he wants “to take a little bit of a pause,” after Congress and the administration have spent nearly $3 trillion already on emergency aid.
“Bailouts are tough,” he said. “They happen to be Democrat states. It’s California, New York. Illinois is in big trouble. Republican states are certainly in strong shape. Is it fair to do that? We’re going to look at it. If we do that, we’ll have to get something for it.”
Mr. Trump has been pushing for eliminating sanctuaries for illegal immigrants as a condition for more aid.
Mr. Biden’s attack was another example of Democrats’ plan to turn the election into a referendum on the president’s handling of the crisis and the economic damage that has resulted.
The president on Thursday denied press reports that he “erupted” at his top campaign advisers last week when they presented him with troubling polling data that showed his support eroding in battleground states as his response to the coronavirus has been criticized.
Mr. Trump’s advisers reportedly told him that his frequent feuding with reporters at coronavirus briefings was hurting his standing among seniors. The president called it “made up nonsense” and said he didn’t shout at his campaign manager, Brad Parscale.
A 50-state survey released Thursday by Northeastern, Harvard and Rutgers universities found approval of Mr. Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis at 44%, with 40% disapproving. Job-approval for all 50 governors averaged 66%, the researchers found.
Mr. Trump said he expects the U.S. economy to begin a “very strong comeback” in the third quarter.
“I think we’re gonna have potentially a great fourth quarter. I feel it. Sometimes what I feel is better than what I think,” Mr. Trump said.
At least 7,000 of the 62,000 coronavirus deaths in the U.S. have occurred at nursing homes. On Thursday afternoon, Mr. Trump announced steps aimed at improving safety for seniors, including shipments by the Federal Emergency Management Agency of extra personal protective equipment to all 15,400 certified nursing homes nationwide.
The administration also is directing $81 million from the March 27 CARES Act, a $2.2 trillion package, to increase inspections of nursing homes.
“Things are happening at the nursing homes that we’re not happy about,” Mr. Trump said. “We don’t want it to happen, so we’re checking that out very carefully and very methodically.”
The administration also is finalizing a rule requiring nursing homes to post testing data online and to report COVID-19 cases to their residents and family members.
Last month, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced new guidelines requiring nursing homes to inform residents and their representatives of a confirmed infection of COVID-19 within 12 hours. If three or more residents or staff develop respiratory symptoms, nursing homes must report those incidents within 72 hours.
The president also is establishing a commission on safety and quality in nursing homes.
“My administration will never waver in its relentless commitment to American seniors,” Mr. Trump said. “We owe them a sacred and unbreakable obligation, and we will fulfill that obligation.”
• Dave Boyer can be reached at email@example.com.
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