WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.”
Governors instead made clear they wouldn’t tolerate being pressures to act.
“The president’s position is just absurd,” said New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo in an appearance Tuesday on “CBS This Morning.” “It’s not the law. It’s not the Constitution. We don’t have a king. We have a president.”
New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu told CNN that, “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.”
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.
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, saying they will work together and 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 at some point.
While Trump can use his bully pulpit, including his daily White House briefings and Twitter account, to try to threaten states with consequences 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,” said John Yoo, a University of California at Berkeley law school professor.
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.
But Cuomo said that, if Trump ordered him to reopen New York’s economy before he thought it was ready, he would refuse. “And we would have a constitutional challenge between the state and the federal government and that would go into the courts and that would be the worst possible thing he could do at this moment,” Cuomo said on CNN’s “New Day.”
Trump slapped back, accusing Cuomo of “calling daily, even hourly, begging for” lifesaving supplies. “I got it all done for him, and everyone else, and now he seems to want Independence!” he tweeted. “That won’t happen!”
And Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, tweeted that he's “not running for office to be King of America” and respects “the great job so many of this country’s governors — Democratic and Republican — are doing under these horrific circumstances.”
Trump's claim that he could force governors to reopen their states also represented a dramatic shift in tone. For weeks Trump had argued that states, not the federal government, should lead the response to the crisis. Indeed, he refused to publicly pressure states to enact stay-at-home restrictions, citing his belief in local control of government.
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.
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.
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.