Trump backs off on ‘total authority’ to re-open states

By Jill Colvin and Zeke Miller
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump said Tuesday he’s open to some states “reopening” before federal social distancing guidelines expire at the end of month, as he appeared to back off his claim of absolute authority to decide when the time was right to act.

Hours after suggesting that the bipartisan concerns of governors about his assertion of power would amount to an insurrection, Trump abruptly reversed course — in substance, if not in rhetoric — saying he would leave it to governors to determine the right time and manner to reopen activity in their states. Trump said he would be speaking with governors, probably on Thursday, to discuss his plans.

“The governors are responsible,” Trump said Tuesday. “They have to take charge.” Still, he insisted, “The governors will be very, very respectful of the presidency.”

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Democratic and Republican governors had sounded the alarm after Trump asserted that he and he alone would determine when and how to reopen the economy, despite clear constitutional limitations on federal powers.

Trump said Tuesday he would be “authorizing each individual governor of each individual state to implement a reopening — and a very powerful reopening — plan of their state at a time and in a matter as most appropriate.” Trump added he would support moves by states that haven’t been hit hard by the outbreak to ease restrictions even before his own guidelines expire April 30. 

It’s unclear if any states are actively considering reopening their economies before May 1.

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It was the latest twist in Trump’s dispute with governors over who has primary responsibility for preserving public health in their jurisdictions. After weeks of saying he would leave major decisions about imposing restrictions in the hands of states, Trump claimed his power to ease them 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.” He declined to offer specifics about the source of his asserted power, claiming he would provide a legal briefing at a later date.

But governors in both parties made clear they saw things differently, and said they would decide when it’s safe to begin a return to normal operations, just as they were the ones who closed things down.

“The president’s position is just absurd,” New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo said 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.”

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Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, also a Republican, said he, too, expected the call to remain with the states.

“I welcome national guidance and assistance,” he said. “But we will do what is needed in the best interest of Arkansans and I think that’s what the people expect.”

Trump, for his part, initially indicated he was relishing the fight with state officials — particularly Democrats in hard-hit states — who have voiced fears that the president’s ambitious timetable could lead to a resurgence of a virus that is still killing more than 1,000 Americans a day.

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“A good old fashioned mutiny every now and then is an exciting and invigorating thing to watch, especially when the mutineers need so much from the Captain,” Trump tweeted Tuesday, adding, “Too easy!”

Anxious to put the crisis behind him, Trump  launched a new advisory council that will hash out plans to reopen the American economy, which has dramatically contracted as businesses have shuttered, leaving millions of people out of work.

He also directed his administration to freeze funding to the World Health Organization, pending a review of its warnings about the coronavirus and China, claiming the international body didn’t deliver adequate early reports on the virus and cost the U.S. valuable response time.

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“The WHO failed in this basic duty and must be held accountable,” Trump said.

Meanwhile, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden 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.”

While Trump has issued national recommendations advising people to 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.

Cuomo said that if Trump ordered him to reopen New York’s economy before he thought it was ready, he would refuse, setting up a “constitutional challenge between the state and the federal government.”

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“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.”

At a later briefing, Cuomo stressed that any tug-of-war between states and the White House was a distraction from more important things.

“This is no time for any division between the federal and state governments,” he said. 

Trump, who has long tried to pass blame to governors, 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!”

Trump appeared to soften his approach later Tuesday as he met with people who have recovered from COVID-19, including former pro football player Mark Campbell and Karen Whitsett, a member of the Michigan House.

“I’m going to be making a decision pretty quickly,” he said, “and it’s being done in conjunction with governors. We have tremendous support from governors and what I do is going to be done in conjunction with governors.”

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