By ROBERT B. REICH
Donald Trump is getting nervous. Internal polls show him losing in November unless the economy comes roaring back.
But much of the American economy remains closed because of the pandemic. The numbers of infections and deaths continue to climb.
So what is Trump’s re-election strategy? Reopen the economy anyway.
Step 1: Remove income support, so people have no choice but to return to work.
Trump’s Labor Department has decided that furloughed employees “must accept” an employer’s offer to return to work and therefore forfeit unemployment benefits, regardless of COVID-19.
One of Trump’s allies, Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, says employees cannot refuse to return to work for fear of contracting the disease. “That’s a voluntary quit,” she said, making someone ineligible for benefits.
GOP officials in Oklahoma are even threatening to withhold the $600 per week of extra unemployment benefits Congress has provided workers if an employer wants to hire them. Safety is irrelevant.
“If the employer will contact us … we will cut off their benefits,” said Teresa Thomas Keller of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission.
Forcing people to choose between getting COVID-19 or losing their livelihood is inhumane. It’s also nonsensical. Public health still depends on as many workers as possible staying home. That’s a big reason why Congress provided the extra benefits.
Step 2: Hide the facts.
No one knows how many Americans are infected because the Trump administration continues to drag its heels on testing. As of late last week, only 6.5 million tests had been conducted on a population of more than 200 million adults.
Florida, one of the first states to reopen, has stopped releasing medical examiners’ statistics on numbers of COVID-19 victims because the numbers are higher than the state’s official count.
But it’s impossible to fight the virus without adequate data. Anthony Fauci, the administration’s leading infectious disease expert, warns that reopening poses “a really significant risk” without more testing.
Not surprisingly, the White House has blocked Fauci from testifying before a House committee examining the response to the pandemic.
Step 3: Pretend it’s about “freedom.”
Weeks ago, Trump used Twitter to call on citizens to “LIBERATE” states like Michigan, whose Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, imposed strict stay-at-home rules.
Michigan has the third-highest number of COVID-19 deaths in America, although the state ranks 10th in population. When Whitmer announced last week that the stay-at-home rules would be extended to May 28, gun-toting protesters descended on the state capitol, chanting, “Lock her up!”
Rather than condemn their behavior, Trump suggested Whitmer “make a deal” with them.
“The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire,” he tweeted. “These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely!”
Meanwhile, the attorney general, William Barr, has directed the Justice Department to take legal action against any state or local authorities imposing lockdown measures that “could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens.”
Making this about “freedom” is absurd. Freedom is meaningless for people who have no choice but to accept a job that risks their health.
Step 4: Shield businesses against lawsuits for spreading the infection.
Trump is pushing to give businesses that reopen a “liability shield” against legal action by workers or customers who get infected by the virus.
Last week, he announced that he would use the Defense Production Act to force meat processing plants to remain open, despite high rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths among meatpackers.
“We’re going to sign an executive order today, I believe, and that’ll solve any liability problems,” Trump said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insists that proposed legislation giving state and local governments funding they desperately need must include legal immunity for corporations that cause workers or consumers to become infected.
“We have a red line on liability,” McConnell said. “It won’t pass the Senate without it.”
But how can the economy safely reopen if companies don’t have an incentive to keep people safe? Promises to provide protective gear and other safeguards are worthless absent the threat of damages if workers or customers become infected.
The truth: The biggest obstacle to reopening the economy is the pandemic itself.
Any rush to reopen without adequate testing and tracing — far more than now underway — will cause even more deaths and a longer economic crisis.
Maybe Trump is betting that the worst of the COVID-19 destruction will occur after election, when the economy appears to be on the road to recovery.
The first responsibility of a president is to keep the public safe. But Donald Trump couldn’t care less. He was slow to respond to the threat, then he lied about it, then made it hard for states — especially those with Democratic governors — to get the equipment they need.
Now he’s trying to force the economy to reopen in order to boost his electoral chances this November, and he’s selling out Americans’ health to seal the deal. This is beyond contemptible.