'Government doesn't get opened up via Twitter ...'
The Associated Press
The Associated Press
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 would not offer specifics about the source of his asserted power, which he claimed, despite constitutional limitations, was absolute.
"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.
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 nonessential businesses. Some of those orders carry fines or other penalties, and in some jurisdictions they 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.
Panel to explore path to reopening economy
Every day, a team of public health officials turns up in the White House briefing room to lay out measures being taken to contain the coronavirus pandemic. A different team, expected to be formally announced as early as Tuesday, has begun meeting behind closed doors in the West Wing to tackle another matter paramount to President Donald Trump: how to begin reopening the American economy.
The council, which is not expected to include health officials, could bring to the forefront the push-pull tensions within the White House between economists and public health officials over how quickly to reopen the economy vs. proceeding cautiously to ensure the virus doesn't spike again.
With the country barreling toward a likely recession ahead of November's election, Trump is eager to spur an economic revival, hoping to steady financial markets and restore some of the 16 million jobs already lost due to the pandemic. He originally hoped to have the country stirring again by Easter but now wants at least a partial reopening by the end of the month.
Many medical experts in the government, including Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx, have cautioned that easing up on social distancing too soon could lead a new wave of the disease that would require shuttering the economy again, with disastrous results.
As for the new council, Trump said he expected "they will give us some also good advice but no, we want to be very, very safe. At the same time we've got to get our country open."
Some ethics experts and participants in past councils created by Trump voiced concerned that the president may not be open to using the new panel to explore diverse viewpoints and hard truths about the best path forward.
"It doesn't work if you bring in the hallelujah chorus," said Thea Lee, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning Washington think tank. Lee served on a short-lived manufacturing council that Trump established early in his presidency.
Among those expected to be part of the new team: Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and White House economic advisers, past and present, Kevin Hassett and Larry Kudlow. New White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is expected to chair the effort.
Senior White House aides Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump had been expected to be part of the team, but Trump, who previously declared the group would be comprised of "the greatest minds," said Monday they would not be included. It would work separately from the coronavirus task force led by Vice President Mike Pence, though there could be some overlap of participants.
The new council is expected to act as an internal West Wing counterbalance to health experts who want Trump to go slow in reopening the nation. The president said Monday the new panel would seek counsel from various industries and include committees representing fields like manufacturing, transportation and religious interests.
Arthur Laffer, an economist Trump has praised, acknowledged that the economy was severely damaged but said it was difficult to tell when it should reopen.
"There's nothing smart about doing it too early," said Laffer.
"You do need a range of opinions and a range of experiences," said Jay Shambaugh, an economist at George Washington University and director of the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution. "This is one of those cases where the minority report is really important — you need people who aren't all thinking the same thing."
Danielle Brian, executive director of the Washington watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, said she is concerned that Trump may not be open to contrary opinions, citing his recent ouster of government inspectors general who had criticized administration actions.
"We've seen very starkly recently how, even when it comes to the sort of the fundamental questions of oversight, people are discounted or fired when they say something that he doesn't want to hear," said Brian.
Donald Sherman, deputy director for the oversight group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said Trump's track record of "choosing patrons and sycophants to run significant parts of his government" leaves him skeptical the council will be much more than a rubber stamp.
The White House said Trump's decision-making process would be measured and involve consultation with the public health officials.
"The President wants to see this economy open again so people can get back to work, but scientific data will drive the timeline on those decisions because his number one priority is to protect the safety and well-being of the American people," said deputy press secretary Judd Deere.