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Trump declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency. What does that mean?

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 3/13/2020 John Fritze


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WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump announced Friday that he is making an emergency declaration to address the coronavirus pandemic. It's not the first time a president has used such a declaration to deal with a public health crisis, but it is rare. 

Trump made the announcement days after the World Health Organization formally declared the coronavirus a pandemic. The global death toll surpassed 5,000 and confirmed cases in the U.S. crept past 1,200, according to Johns Hopkins.

It came as his administration has been under scrutiny for its handling of the virus, particularly the distribution of coronavirus tests.     

Specifics of Trump's declaration – which was expected to be different than the emergency he declared last year to free up funding for his border wall – were not yet fully clear. A federal "emergency" can come in many different flavors.

Here are some details about a president's emergency powers.  

Didn't Trump already declare an emergency back in January? 

The Trump administration declared a "public health" emergency in late January. That designation, technically made by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, made it easier for states to redirect staff responding to the virus. The announcement was made in tandem with a quarantine order for U.S. citizens returning from hard-hit areas of China. 

What the White House announced now is more substantial.

Trump has been blasting his predecessor, President Barack Obama, for not declaring "an emergency" fast enough in response to the 2009 Swine flu outbreak. But Obama actually did declare a public health emergency early in that outbreak, when there were only 20 known cases in the U.S.   

How is this emergency declaration different? 

Trump declared an emergency under the Stafford Act, the same 1988 law presidents use to declare disaster areas after storms and other natural disasters.  That frees up billions of dollars in Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to confront the coronavirus. That would allow the president to access about $42 billion in the Disaster Relief Fund. How that money gets used is not yet clear, but it could be used for small businesses, housing and other aid.

Has that ever been done for this kind of problem before? 

Yes. Presidents have relied on the Stafford Act to free up funding after terrorist attacks, including Sept. 11, 2001, and 2013 Boston Marathon attacks. The act also has been used for public health crises. President Bill Clinton declared an emergency under the Stafford Act to free up money in response to the West Nile virus in 2000, for example. Those declarations allocated millions to New York and New Jersey. 

In 2014, Obama issued an emergency declaration for a chemical spill in West Virginia. Two years later, Obama issued an emergency declaration during the Flint, Michigan, water contamination crisis.     

Is this the same thing as Trump's border wall emergency? 

Experts believe Trump will rely on a different law than he used to free up billions of dollars to step up construction of his border wall. In that case, Trump relied on the 1976 National Emergencies Act to invoke other provisions of law that let him transfer money from the Pentagon to wall construction. National emergencies under this act are quite common. Dozens of those emergencies declared by presidents remain in effect, often to freeze assets and impose other sanctions on foreign governments.  

Oh, yeah? Name one. 

No problem. Trump alone has signed several emergencies into law. For instance, he signed an executive order in 2018 that gave him power to slap sanctions on any foreign country that interferes in a U.S. election. That action was taken after criticism that Trump did not do enough to confront Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Is that it? 

Not necessarily, Trump could also declare an emergency under the National Emergencies Act as well as the Stafford Act. Such a move could allow the Department of Health and Human Services to waive certain requirements in Medicare, Medicaid and other health programs. It could also allow him to transfer unused funding in some parts of the federal budget to the coronavirus response. In making a declaration, the president would have to explain specifically which emergency powers he's invoking under the National Emergencies Act.    

What is the Stafford Act?

The Stafford Act allows the federal government to offer a wide range of aid to states, municipalities, hospitals and even individuals.

Americans may be eligible for “immediate direct and financial assistance” to help with “housing and other disaster-related needs,” according to the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

When the Stafford Act is activated to deal with a pandemic, the federal government can begin providing direct emergency medical care to citizens throughout the country. This could include the establishment of temporary hospitals, for example, to ease the nation’s projected shortage of intensive care beds.

The government could also use the act to provide food, water, medicine and other supplies to Americans.

Public facilities where aid is being administered could be eligible for reimbursements, including hospitals, schools and custodial care facilities. Eligible facilities would get 75% of their costs reimbursed from the federal government and 25% from their respective states. 

Contributing: Nathan Bomey

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: President Donald Trump reaches out to speak with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), left, and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, right, following the presentation. © Jack Gruber, USA TODAY NETWORK President Donald Trump reaches out to speak with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), left, and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, right, following the presentation.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency. What does that mean?

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