WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump asserted Monday that he is the ultimate decision-maker for determining how and when to reopen the coronavirus-stricken country, though it is unclear what authority he has to overrule the states.
While Trump, who is anxious to put the crisis behind him, has issued federal social distancing recommendations, it has been governors and local leaders who have instituted mandatory restrictions, including shuttering schools and ordering the closure of non-essential businesses.
The White House did not immediately respond to questions about what authority they believe the president might have to overrule local orders. Under the Constitution, public health and safety is primarily the domain of state and local officials. And many of those leaders have expressed concern that Trump’s plan to try to return to normal as soon as the end of the month will cost lives and extend the duration of the outbreak.
Though he abandoned his once-held goal of rolling back regulations by Easter Sunday, Trump has been itching to reopen a battered economy that has plummeted as businesses have shuttered, leaving millions of people out of work and struggling to obtain basic commodities.
Taking to Twitter on Monday, Trump said 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.”
He added, “With that being said, the Administration and I are working closely with the Governors, and this will continue. A decision by me, in conjunction with the Governors and input from others, will be made shortly!”
Trump last month put in place nationwide recommendations that most Americans stay home and distant from one another in order to slow the spread of the virus. But his guidelines, scheduled to expire at the end of the month, have little force — unlike actions of governors and local leaders that carry fines or other other penalties, and in some jurisdictions extend out into the early summer.
Trump's claim that he could force governors to reopen their states also represents a drastic 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.
Some states, like Ohio and Washington state, took more aggressive action to shut down than the White House initially suggested. Others, like Florida, have waited and resisted the strictest orders.
Talk on 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.
Comments by the nation's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, particularly seemed to draw the president's ire.
When asked Sunday on CNN if acting earlier on social distancing and “stay at home” policies could have saved lives, Fauci said was “very difficult to go back and say that," but added: "I mean, 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 reposted a tweet that referenced Fauci’s comments and included the line, “Time to #FireFauci," raising alarms that Trump might consider trying to boot the nation's top infectious diseases expert.
But a senior administration official said Trump was not considering firing Fauci, and was merely reacting to what he perceived to be criticism of his leadership. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions.
“This media chatter is ridiculous - President Trump is not firing Dr. Fauci,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley later said in a statement, insisting it was Democrats and the media who ignored the virus, not Trump.
“Dr. Fauci has been and remains a trusted advisor to President Trump,” he said.
Fauci, 79, a career official, has emerged as one of the most recognizable and trusted faces of the federal government’s response.
Meanwhile, federal officials were working on expanding the availability of testing — including tests that could show whether someone has antibodies for the virus, indicating they've recovered and may be immune — as a necessary step toward easing the social distancing guidelines.
On a conference call Monday with governors, Vice President Mike Pence and Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, raised concerns about untapped testing capacity, encouraging hospitals and lab facilities to coordinate to improve the efficiency of testing.
Birx said that on one platform, providers had the supplies to run 3 million tests over the last three weeks, but have only run 200,000.
Pence also said an announcement would be made later this week on expected approval for antibody tests.
Trump has promised to unveil a task force of White House, state and local officials, business executives, economists and health officials Tuesday as he explores how to reopen businesses without reversing progress.
Fauci has talked about the possibility of “rolling reentry” for certain parts of the country as early as next month, provided health authorities can quickly identify and isolate people who will inevitably be infected. But he said he “can't guarantee" that it will be safe for Americans to vote in person on Election Day, Nov. 3.
Fauci cautioned that whenever restrictions ease, “we know that there will be people who will be getting infected. I mean, that is just reality. “
And he warned that, “There is always the possibility, as we get into next fall, and the beginning of early winter, that we could see a rebound."
Associated Press writers Mark Sherman, Alan Suderman and Darlene Superville contributed. Suderman reported from Richmond, Virginia.