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Coronavirus and the 2020 elections: How the candidates are responding

Ben Werschkul
DC Producer

As the number of deaths caused by the coronavirus rises and the stock market continues its brutal selloff this week, the Democratic presidential candidates have come down hard on the White House’s response to the growing epidemic.

The 2020 candidates have been searching for a range of ways in recent days to stay in the conversation and combat the coronavirus, or COVID-19

On Thursday and Friday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced a couple novel ideas.

"Your institution has been designated as a globally systemically important bank," she wrote in letters to the CEOs of Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley on Friday as part of 8 questions to "better understand how you are monitoring and preparing for the risks associated with this outbreak."

The banks have two weeks to respond.

On Thursday, Warren announced a separate bill that would defund President Trump’s beloved border wall to pay for the response. "Rather than use taxpayer dollars to pay for a monument to hate and division, my bill will help ensure that the federal government has the resources it needs to adequately respond to this emergency," she said in a statement put out by her Senate office.

Don’t look for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to take up Warren’s bill anytime soon. But it’s an example of just one of the ways that the candidates are moving to be heard above the noise as public fears skyrocket just ahead of the critical Super Tuesday contests next week.

Pete Buttigieg zeroed in on the choice of Vice President Mike Pence to lead the response during an appearance on CNN Thursday night.

“I was a little bit alarmed when the word came that he was being tapped to lead the coronavirus response,” he said.

The former South Bend, Ind., mayor compared the needed response to COVID-19 to the HIV epidemic and how things like needle-exchange programs helped slow that virus. Pence “was dragged kicking and screaming into that,” said Buttigieg. “Had he acted earlier, I believe that the worst parts of that HIV epidemic could have been avoided” in Indiana.

Mike Bloomberg — with his giant campaign war chest — has already cut an ad about the crisis that began airing nationwide Thursday.

The ad hits Trump for the crisis and quickly pivots to Bloomberg’s handling of the aftermath of 9/11.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, during a recent debate, said his response would mirror the response to the Ebola outbreak when he was Vice President. “I was part of making sure that pandemic did not get to the United States, saved millions of lives,” he said on Tuesday night. “I would be on the phone with China and making it clear, we are going to need to be in your country; you have to be open; you have to be clear; we have to know what's going on; we have to be there with you, and insist on it and insist, insist, insist.”

What all the candidates agree on, not surprisingly, is that the White House response has been inadequate. Earlier this week, the White House asked for $1.25 billion in new emergency funds to respond to the crisis and also asked for an additional $1.25 billion in funds that would be diverted from other federal programs. 

Democrats across the spectrum, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, lambasted the idea. Schumer said is was “too little too late” in a statement. The diverted funds, Schumer said, would “steal funds dedicated to fight Ebola — which is still considered an epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

Democrats — including most 2020 candidates — have noted that Trump’s most recent budget had proposed cuts to the parts of the federal government that are now tasked with containing the virus.

“We have to make sure the CDC, the NIH, our infectious departments, are fully funded,” Bernie Sanders said at Tuesday’s debate. Sanders also poked fun at Trump, calling him “this great scientist we have in the White House.”

The contrast these candidates are trying to draw with Trump’s attempts to downplay the crisis is clear. On Wednesday, the president said the U.S. was preparing for worst-case scenarios, but “I don’t think we will ever be anywhere near that.”

“The threat to the American public remains low,” Trump said during the press conference where, among other things, he joked about his own germaphobia.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar has her own plan for global pandemic prevention but took a slightly different tack during Tuesday’s debate.

“I want to take this out of politics right now,” she said. “I'm not going to give my website right now. I'm going to give the CDC's website, which is cdc.gov, so that people keep checking in and they follow the rules and they realize what they have to do if they feel sick and they call their health care provider.”

The story has been updated to reflect new developments, including Sen. Warren’s letter to the bank CEOs and Pete Buttigieg’s comments about Mike Pence.

Ben Werschkul is a producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.

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