President Donald Trump claimed the “total” authority Monday 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 the primary constitutional responsibility for ensuring public safety in their states and would decide when it’s safe to begin a return to normal operations.
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, even as Trump argued it was his call.
“When somebody is president of the United States, the authority is total,” Trump said at Monday’s White House coronavirus briefing. “The governors know that.”
But he would not offer specifics about the source of that claim, which governors asserted was a vast power grab, or his plan to reopen the economy. The president’s guidelines have little force. Governors and local leaders have issued orders that carry fines or other penalties, and in some jurisdictions extend into the early summer.
“We’re going to write up papers on this,” Trump said, brushing aside questions about his claim of absolute authority to order states to reopen, adding, “The governors need us one way or the other.”
Anxious to put the twin public health and economic crises behind him, Trump was already discussing with senior aides how to roll back federal social distancing recommendations that expire at the end of the month. But it has been governors and local leaders who have instituted mandatory restrictions meant to slow the virus, including shuttering schools and closing non-essential businesses. And they have indicated they wouldn’t tolerate pressure to act before they deem it safe to reverse their orders.
Vice President Mike Pence backed up Trump’s claim, also without offering specific grounding, saying that at times of emergency, the powers of the president are “unquestionably plenary.”
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.
“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.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said, “Seeing how we had the responsibility for closing the state down, I think we probably have the primary responsibility for opening it up.”
Wolf joined governors in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island in 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.”
Though Trump abandoned his goal of rolling back social distancing guidelines by Easter, he has been itching to reopen 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 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.
“The government doesn’t get opened up via Twitter. It gets opened up at the state level,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, said.
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. 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.”
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 79-year-old doctor. But at Monday’s briefing, Trump said: “I’m not firing him. I think he’s a wonderful guy.”
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.
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.