U.S. President Donald Trump claimed the “total” authority to decide how and when to reopen the economy after weeks of tough social distancing guidelines aimed at fighting the new coronavirus. But governors from both parties were quick to push back, noting they have primary responsibility for ensuring public safety in their states and would decide when it’s safe to begin a return to normal operations.
Trump sparred with reporters during the briefing who challenged his assertions and would not offer specifics about the source of his asserted power, which he claimed, despite constitutional limitations, was absolute.
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"#TrumpMeltdown" began trending on Twitter as clips of the briefing circulated online and news outlets like CNN used the term in real time to report on the briefing.
“When somebody is president of the United States, the authority is total,” Trump said Monday at the White House. “The governors know that.”
The comments came not long after Democratic leaders in the Northeast and along the West Coast announced separate state compacts to coordinate their efforts to scale back stay-at-home orders or reopen businesses on their own timetables.
Anxious to put the crisis behind him, Trump has been discussing with senior aides how to roll back federal social distancing recommendations that expire at the end of the month.
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While Trump has issued national recommendations advising people stay home, it has been governors and local leaders who have instituted mandatory restrictions, including shuttering schools and closing non-essential businesses. Some of those orders carry fines or other penalties, and in some jurisdictions extend into the early summer.
And governors made clear Monday they wouldn’t tolerate pressure to act before they deem it safe.
“All of these executive orders are state executive orders and so therefore it would be up to the state and the governor to undo a lot of that,” New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said on CNN.
“The government doesn’t get opened up via Twitter. It gets opened up at the state level,” said Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat.
Meanwhile, governors were banding together, with New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Rhode Island agreeing to coordinate their actions. The governors of California, Oregon and Washington announced a similar pact. While each state is building its own plan, the three West Coast states have agreed to a framework saying they will work together, put their residents’ health first and let science guide their decisions.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, stressed the efforts would take time.
“The house is still on fire,” Murphy said on a conference call with reporters. “We still have to put the fire out, but we do have to begin putting in the pieces of the puzzle that we know we’re going to need ... to make sure this doesn’t reignite.”
Trump, however, insisted it was his decision to make.
“The president of the United States calls the shots,” he said, promising to release a paper outlining his legal argument.
Trump can use his bully pulpit to pressure states to act or threaten them with consequences, but the Constitution gives public health and safety responsibilities primarily to state and local officials.
Though Trump abandoned his goal of beginning to roll back social distancing guidelines by Easter, he has been itching to reboot an economy that has dramatically contracted as businesses have shuttered, leaving millions of people out of work and struggling to obtain basic commodities. The closure has also undermined Trump’s reelection message, which hinged on a booming economy.
Trump’s claim that he could force governors to reopen their states also represents a dramatic shift in tone. For weeks Trump has argued that states, not the federal government, should lead the response to the crisis. And he has refused to publicly pressure states to enact stay-at-home restrictions, citing his belief in local control of government.
While Trump can use his daily White House briefings and Twitter account to try to shape public opinion and pressure governors to bend to his will, “there are real limits on the president and the federal government when it comes to domestic affairs,” John Yoo, a University of California at Berkeley law school professor, said on a recent Federalist Society conference call.
Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, a supporter of Trump, said the question of when to lift restrictions would be “a joint effort” between Washington and the states.
Talk about how and when to reboot the nation’s economy has come as Trump has bristled at criticism that he was slow to respond to the virus and that lives could have been saved had social distancing recommendations been put in place sooner.
That frustration was amplified by comments made by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, who told CNN on Sunday that, “obviously,” had the country “started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives.”
Trump responded by reposting a tweet that included the line, “Time to #FireFauci,” raising alarms that Trump might consider trying to oust the 79-year-old doctor. But at Monday’s briefing, Trump insisted Fauci’s job was safe after Fauci took the podium to try to explain his comments.
Trump has complained to aides and confidants about Fauci’s positive media attention and his willingness to contradict the president in interviews and from the briefing room stage, according to two Republicans close to the White House. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal conversations.
But Trump has told aides that he knows blowback to removing Fauci would be fierce and that — at least for now — he is stuck with the doctor. On more than one occasion, however, he has urged that Fauci be left out of task force briefings or have his speaking role curtailed, according to the Republicans.