AILSA CHANG, HOST:
At 8:30 this morning, the federal government reported that the U.S. economy shriveled at an annual rate of nearly 33% in April, May and June. This is the sharpest economic contraction in modern American history. At the same time, the Labor Department said unemployment filings went up last week, another sign of the nation's economic pain. Fifteen minutes after this bad economic news, the president tweeted about mail-in voting, suggesting it would lead to a fraudulent election. And then he asked this question. Quote, "delay the election until people can properly, securely and safely vote?" The tweet ended with three question marks. Later in the day, he said he didn't really want a delay; he just wanted to stir debate.
Here with more on all of this is NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, voting reporter Miles Parks and chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley.
Hey to all three of you.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good evening.
MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi there.
CHANG: Hi. Scott, I want to start with you because I want to start with the economy. What do these new numbers tell us exactly?
HORSLEY: Well, they tell us that the economy really shrank in the second quarter. Pretty much all the numbers in the report are negative. But it was a deep drop in consumer spending that led the decline. Obviously, we remember a lot of shops and restaurants and even doctor's offices were closed during the spring as we tried to control the spread of the virus. Economist Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics says the resulting slowdown was almost four times as bad as what we saw during the worst quarter of the Great Recession.
MARK ZANDI: It was cataclysmic. The economy fell into just a deep, dark hole and just highlights how hard it's going to be to get out of that hole.
HORSLEY: We did start to claw our way out in May and June, but the strength of the recovery is now in doubt as the virus expands its deadly footprint. The other thing these numbers show is how much federal spending did help to prop up the economy in the spring, both the $1,200 relief payments that went out as well as the supplemental unemployment benefits of $600 a week. Without that federal spending, the springtime slump would have been even worse.
CHANG: Right. I mean, those federal unemployment benefits expire tomorrow, and Congress is still debating whether to extend them. So if those payments are so helpful, as you say, what is taking lawmakers so long?
HORSLEY: It's a good question. You know, President Trump and his Republican allies in Congress are not going to be able to run on a booming economy, as they would have liked, but you would think they would at least want to avoid running on an even deeper recession. That's one reason Zandi thinks eventually lawmakers will come around and approve some kind of additional relief payments. Zandi says it's both good policy and good politics.
ZANDI: They better do it fast, otherwise this economy's going to slip away, and so are their election chances.
CHANG: Well, speaking of the election, Miles, let's talk about that tweet we just heard. Does Trump have any sort of power to actually be able to delay this election, say, like, in case of an emergency or for any reason?
PARKS: The short answer is no. You know, adjusting the date of the presidential election would require bipartisan agreement in Congress, which at this point is just highly unlikely. And then even if you could delay with that congressional approval, you'd only be able to do it by a couple weeks. If you wanted to delay it further than that, then that would require a constitutional amendment, which is an even higher bar. I talked to NYU constitutional law expert Richard Pildes and asked him the chances of something like this election delay actually happening.
RICHARD PILDES: It's virtually inconceivable that the presidential election would be delayed.
CHANG: Virtually inconceivable. OK. Well, Tam, how have lawmakers been reacting to this tweet?
KEITH: So Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in Congress, shut it down and shut it down fast. He said never in the history of the country - through wars, depressions, even the Civil War - has an election been postponed, and it won't happen this time, either. Condemnation from Democrats came fast, as you would expect. And there was this mad scramble from Trump allies to say he wasn't really serious. RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel was on Fox Business News.
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RONNA MCDANIEL: Well, the president obviously understands that that's done by Congress, constitutionally. But he's trying to highlight what many in the media are not paying attention to - we have a huge problem right now with mail-in voting across the country.
KEITH: And after hours of outrage, at a press conference this afternoon, President Trump said that he did not want to change the date, but he's sowing doubt about the eventual of the election as he currently trails in the polls.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I want to have the result of the election. I don't want to be waiting around for weeks and months and literally, potentially if you really did it right, years because you'll never know.
KEITH: And so he is raising questions about mail-in ballots.
CHANG: Mail-in ballots, OK. Well, Miles, let's go back to you on that. I mean, what are the concerns Republicans have been raising about mail-in voting? And is there truly a huge problem with it?
PARKS: Right. So there are real administrative concerns with ramping up mail voting as fast as a lot of states across the country are trying to do, including that many of them just don't have enough money to do it at this point. But that's not what the president really seems to be focused on. His concerns, the ones that he's been voicing on Twitter and publicly, seem to be based in fraud, either by mail ballots getting into the wrong hands or even being counterfeited. But election officials and experts say there are a lot of safeguards in place that make these issues very hard to pull off, even for just one vote. Basically, they're close to impossible to pull off at scale.
Trump also said he's worried that results won't be available quickly on election night. But the people running the election that I've talked to, the election officials, say the priority has to be getting the results right and accurate and making sure everyone who wants to vote can vote, not making sure those results are out as quickly as possible.
CHANG: Well, Tam, I want to go to you now because I feel like we have seen this before, where President Trump floats something - he, like, asks a question. What is going on here?
KEITH: The president has boasted about how all he has to do is send a tweet and he can send everyone into a tizzy, and that's exactly what happened today. All of a sudden, the headlines on cable switched from the economy to the president floating the idea of postponing the election. The provocative question is an old go-to for him. In 2016, he asked why no one was talking about Ted Cruz's father being involved in the Kennedy assassination. He wasn't. He asked why no one had seen former President Obama's birth certificate, and on and on and on. And then, as he did today, he or his aides will say he wasn't serious. He was just asking questions. He was being sarcastic.
CHANG: Well, do you have any idea why President Trump even does this? Because it just, like, brings on fact-checking and negative stories. That doesn't seem to be helpful.
KEITH: Right. But it also works because he doesn't have to take full ownership, and he can throw something out there and get it into the bloodstream. I talked to Jennifer Mercieca about it. She's an associate professor at Texas A&M University and the author of a new book about President Trump's rhetoric.
JENNIFER MERCIECA: He uses the plausible deniability - the I'm not saying; I'm just saying - and then he will attack you for taking him seriously.
KEITH: And, she says, when it's all over, Trump has successfully gotten his ideas into the conversation.
CHANG: That is NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. We also heard from voting reporter Miles Parks and chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley.
Thanks to all three of you.
KEITH: You're welcome.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.