The US House of Representatives has approved legislation to provide direct relief to Americans suffering physically, financially and emotionally from the coronavirus pandemic.
Donald Trump on Friday declared the outbreak a national emergency, freeing up money and resources to fight it, then threw his support behind the congressional aid package.
The president said: “I am officially declaring a national emergency,” unleashing as much as 50 billion dollars for state and local governments to respond to the crisis.
I don't take responsibility at allDonald Trump
He also announced a range of executive actions, including a new public-private partnership to expand testing capabilities with drive-through locations, as Washington tries to subdue the virus whose spread is hammering markets, shutting institutions and disrupting the everyday lives of Americans.
But he denied any responsibility for delays in making testing available after his administration came under criticism for being too slow to respond.
Mr Trump said: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
As the House prepared to vote late on Friday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi trumpeted the hard-fought package that will provide free testing, sick pay for workers, enhanced unemployment benefits and bolstered food programmes.
“We did what we said we were going to do: put families first,” she said. The House passed the bill after midnight on a bipartisan vote, 363-40. It now goes to the Senate.
Mr Trump’s tweet of approval instilled fresh energy in the package, all but ensuring that wary Republicans would join with a robust vote.
He wrote: “I encourage all Republicans and Democrats to come together and VOTE YES! Look forward to signing the final Bill, ASAP!”
The late-day activity capped a tumultuous week in Washington as the fast-moving virus left ordinary Americans suddenly navigating self-quarantines, school closures and a changed way of life.
The White House was under enormous pressure dealing with the crisis on multiple fronts as it encroached closer on the president.
Mr Trump has been known to flout public health advice — and was eagerly shaking hands during the more than hour-long afternoon event — but acknowledged he will “most likely” be tested soon after exposures to individuals who have tested positive for the virus.
The White House physician indicated later that the president’s interactions were low-risk and testing is not necessary.
Mr Trump said officials do not want people taking the test unless they have certain symptoms. “We don’t want people without symptoms to go and do that test. It’s totally unnecessary.”
He took a number of other actions to bolster energy markets, ease the financial burden for Americans with student loans and give medical professionals additional “flexibility” in treating patients during the public health crisis.
“Through a very collective action and shared sacrifice, national determination, we will overcome the threat of the virus,” Mr Trump said.
To those families and citizens who are worried and concerned for themselves and their loved ones, I want you to know that your Federal Government will unleash every authority, resource and tool at its disposal to safeguard the lives and health of our people. pic.twitter.com/uVDY12vXAM— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 14, 2020
He said he was glad that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro had tested negative for the virus, after the pair sat next to each other for an extended period of time last weekend at Mr Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club. A senior aide to Mr Bolsonaro tested positive.
Mr Trump’s daugher Ivanka worked from home on Friday after meeting Australian home affairs minister Peter Dutton, now in isolation in hospital after testing positive for the coronavirus. White House spokesman Judd Deere said she was evaluated by the White House Medical Unit.
Attorney general William Barr, who also met the Australian official, stayed home on Friday, although he “felt great and wasn’t showing any symptoms”, according to his spokeswoman.
Several legislators, including some close to Mr Trump, have also been exposed to people who tested positive for the virus, and are self-isolating.