WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump asserted Monday that it’s his call 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 on that idea and it was unclear what authority Trump has to overrule them.
While Trump, who is anxious to put the crisis behind him, has backed federal social distancing recommendations, it has been governors and local leaders who have instituted mandatory restrictions, including shuttering schools and closing non-essential businesses.
Taking to Twitter, Trump wrote that some are “saying that it is the Governors decision to open up the states, not that of the President of the United States & the Federal Government. Let it be fully understood that this is incorrect … it is the decision of the President, and for many good reasons.”
The White House did not immediately respond to questions about what authority the president might have to overrule local orders. While Trump can use his bully pulpit to pressure states to act or threaten them with consequences, under the Constitution, public health and safety is primarily the domain of state and local officials.
“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.
“I don’t believe that’s an accurate statement,” Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, said of Trump’s tweet. ”Clearly, all along the governors have taken a lead on this all across the country. I anticipate that will continue going forward.”
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, told reporters on a conference call that until people are healthy, reopening the economy’s “not going to work.”
“Seeing how we had the responsibility for closing the state down, I think we probably have the primary responsibility for opening it up,” he added.
Though Trump abandoned his goal of rolling back social distancing guidelines by Sunday, he has been itching to reopen an economy that has plummeted 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 last month put in place nationwide recommendations that most Americans stay home in order to slow the spread of the virus. But his guidelines, due to expire at the end of the month, have little force. Governors and local leaders, in contrast, have issued orders that carry fines or other penalties, and in some jurisdictions extend out into the early summer.
Trump’s claim that he could force governors to reopen their states represents a dramatic shift in tone. For weeks now, 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.
“The government doesn’t get opened up via Twitter. It gets opened up at the state level,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, said.
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 nation’s top infectious diseases expert. Asked Sunday on CNN if acting earlier could have saved lives, Fauci said that, “obviously, you could logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives. Obviously, no one is going to deny that. But what goes into those kinds of decisions is complicated.”
Trump responded by reposting a tweet that referenced Fauci’s comments and included the line, “Time to #FireFauci,” raising alarms that Trump might consider trying to oust the doctor. Fauci, 79, has served in both Democratic and Republican administrations and has emerged as one of the most recognizable and trusted faces of the federal government’s response.
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. But he was not considering firing Fauci as of Monday, according to a senior administration official. All three spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal conversations.
“This media chatter is ridiculous – President Trump is not firing Dr. Fauci,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a statement.
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. He has, on more than one occasion, however, urged that Fauci be left out of task force briefings or have his speaking role curtailed, according to the Republicans.
Aides have often urged Trump allies to ignore Trump’s retweets, saying the president does not always read to the end of the things he reposts and may not have meant to endorse the original tweet’s sentiment. It was not clear whether the president meant to amplify the #FireFauci hashtag, but he has chosen not to delete his retweet — a move that could be interpreted as a warning to Fauci or yet another attempt to get a rise out of the press.
Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire in New York, Alan Suderman in Richmond, Virginia, Holly Ramer in Hopkinton, New Hampshire, John O’Connor in Springfield, Illinois, Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin, David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan, Mark Sherman and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.
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