Steven Mnuchin had an ominous message for Senate Republicans gathered Tuesday in a marble-clad meeting room in the Russell office building: we need to pass a virus stimulus bill, or the U.S. could be looking at a 20 percent unemployment rate.

The message was a far cry from little more than a week ago, when Trump and his aides had declared the economy was resilient enough to withstand the coronavirus outbreak. That line had changed, and it fell to Mnuchin to brief the Republicans, who had scattered themselves around the red-draped chamber to maintain their social distancing.

Mnuchin said the fallout actually could be worse than the 2008 financial crisis, according to three people familiar with his remarks, and called for a package of more than $1 trillion that would include direct payments to everyday Americans.

His tone echoed the sudden urgency of his boss, President Donald Trump, who on Monday asked Americans to essentially shut down public life in the country -- stay away from restaurants, bars and gatherings of more than 10 people; educate your children at home, if practical.

And that number -- $1 trillion -- had come straight from Trump himself.

At a White House meeting Monday night, Trump reviewed Mnuchin’s plan for an $850 billion stimulus. Why not make it a trillion, Trump said. If you want to go big, go big, the president remarked, according to three people familiar with the meeting, who like others cited in this story asked not to be identified discussing internal White House deliberations.

Mnuchin assembled a $1.2 trillion plan over a series of phone calls with lawmakers that stretched from Monday evening into Tuesday morning.

Whirlwind Speed
The sheer size of the proposal and the whirlwind speed at which it appeared took some senators aback. At the White House, there was a feeling the time had come for a new approach.

For nearly two weeks, Trump had watched a parade of despair through the West Wing. Airline executives told him planes were empty. Wal-Mart Inc. chief executive Doug McMillon said stores were being depleted by panicked hoarding. His coronavirus task force had briefed him on a range of projections for the spread of the disease -- including one by researchers at Imperial College in Britain who predicted that 2.2 million Americans could die if the government did nothing and the outbreak was uncontained.

Even Trump’s son, Barron, had asked his father how bad it would get.

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