Washington – U.S. President Donald Trump declared he has “total” authority to order states to relax social distancing to combat the coronavirus outbreak and reopen their economies, and warned that governors who refuse would face political consequences.
“When someone is president of the United States, the authority is total,” Trump said at a White House news conference Monday. Challenged to substantiate his claim, he said “numerous provisions” support him and offered reporters a legal briefing, though he provided no specifics.
Legal experts and some governors disputed Trump’s claim. The 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reserves for states all powers that aren’t specifically granted to the federal government.
Trump said his administration would issue guidance within days for governors who want to begin relaxing social-distancing practices, and said he hopes to reopen the country “ahead of schedule.” He didn’t say that he would order governors to remove limits against their wishes, but when asked what would happen if they refused to comply, Trump said that “if some states refuse to open, I would like to see that person run for election.”
The president’s remarks followed his assertion earlier Monday on Twitter that it will be up to him — not governors — to decide whether parts of the country can relent on social distancing, which has collapsed the U.S. economy. Later Monday, six states in the U.S. Northeast, including New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, said they would jointly develop a plan to reopen schools and businesses after the outbreak subsides, while California, Washington and Oregon said they would join together for their own framework.
Trump declined to say whether those states had informed him of their plans before they were announced.
“The governors need us, one way or the other,” he said. “I feel very certain that there won’t be a problem. They will cooperate perfectly. Watch.”
Some of Trump’s top economic advisers are intensifying their efforts to persuade the president and other members of his coronavirus task force to give more weight to the emotional, health and financial toll of the economic shutdown.
White House meeting
At a White House meeting Saturday, top economic advisers — including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow and former Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Kevin Hassett — addressed members of the task force. Some of Trump’s aides have been concerned the health team wasn’t sufficiently weighing the public health consequences of a country closed for business.
Saturday’s meeting included Vice President Mike Pence, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, senior adviser Jared Kushner and counselor Kellyanne Conway, as well as top health advisers Deborah Birx, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield.
In the meeting, the economic advisers delivered a grave assessment of the economy, according to people familiar with the matter. They asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations.
The health advisers aren’t against re-opening the economy. Fauci has said that the government should begin planning for it, and that parts of the country relatively untouched by the virus could relax social distancing once the U.S. develops testing capacity to detect new outbreaks.
Some of Trump’s aides believe the public health threats of an extended economic recession rival those of the virus — increased mental illness and psychological duress that could raise suicide rates, worsening physical health for unemployed people and increased use of drugs and alcohol.
It’s an argument Trump himself has aired. After ceding to his health advisers’ insistence that the economic shutdown should extend beyond his initial target of Easter, his patience appears to be wearing thin. He said Monday he would make a decision “soon” on reopening, “in conjunction with the governors and input from others.”
But he asserted that “it is the decision of the president, and for many good reasons.” He didn’t list any.
The White House issued guidance March 16 recommending Americans isolate themselves from one another to curb the spread of the virus after many governors, mayors, businesses and families had already adopted the practices. Trump subsequently extended the guidance through the end of April.
He declined to say Monday whether he would seek to reopen the country on May 1.
In the meantime, the shutdown has battered markets and more than 16 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits over the past three weeks.
It isn’t clear that Americans would comply should Trump urge them to return to work and schools before the outbreak abates, and legal analysts and lawmakers say it isn’t within his power to overrule governors’ orders.
Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas in Austin, said on Twitter that “the president has no formal legal authority to categorically override local or state shelter-in-place orders or to reopen schools and small businesses.”
“No statute delegates to him such power; no constitutional provision invests him with such authority,” Vladeck said.
Rep. Justin Amash, a former Republican who is now an independent and voted for Trump’s impeachment, said in a tweet that the president is “flat-out wrong.”
“Put down the authoritarianism and read the Constitution,” he said.
A spokesman for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Mike Faulk, said that “respectfully, the president’s claims are false. The states have the authority when it comes to stay-home orders.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Trump could probably decide when schools and businesses should reopen but noted that the president has effectively delegated those decisions to governors.
“You want to shift the responsibilities in the relationship?” Cuomo said in a news conference Monday. “Fine, I’m open to that. Explain to me what they do, what I do. Open what, open it when, open it how?”
Trump’s relationship with governors during the outbreak has been complicated and oftentimes prickly.
Governors have complained that they’ve been forced to take over responsibilities of the federal government, including testing for the virus and procuring medical supplies. Democratic governors who have faulted the federal response have suffered Trump’s wrath, enduring personal insults and criticism on Twitter and in his daily news conferences.
Trump has previously suggested governors have broad autonomy in the outbreak. As coronavirus cases escalated, he declined to criticize governors who refused to issue stay-at-home orders, saying the decision was theirs.
“We have a thing called the Constitution, which I cherish, number one,” Trump said April 4 when asked about the holdout governors, who are all Republicans. “Number two, those governors — I know every one of them — they’re doing a great job. They’re being very, very successful in what they’re doing. And as you know, I want the governors to be running things.”
Trump has said he would announce an “Opening Our Country Council” on Tuesday, a group charged with advising the administration on restoring the economy.
There’s still general agreement among all members of the coronavirus task force that it would be dangerous to relax social distancing too soon. Doing so could allow the virus to re-emerge, risking more lives and further economic damage, as well as public perceptions of the president’s competency.
Meadows and other top advisers have acknowledged that it’s a balancing act, and that there is risk in either hurrying back or playing the situation too conservatively. Trump last Friday called it “the biggest decision I’ve ever had to make.”
Those pushing for the administration to more aggressively focus on an economic reopening see encouraging developments in the medical fight. Over the weekend, Trump’s coronavirus testing czar, Adm. Brett Giroir, said the U.S. is working toward building the testing capacity it will need to relax social distancing, including widespread surveillance to detect new flare-ups, testing people with symptoms, contact-tracing for confirmed cases and antibody testing to know who has recovered from the virus.
“By May we’ll have a lot more testing than we do now,” Giroir said in an interview. “By May, we certainly will be in the ballpark.”
And Redfield on Monday said told Fox News that the nation is “very close” to the peak of coronavirus cases and that nationally, caseloads have “stabilized.”
“We’re close, we’re stabilized and I anticipate that we’ll begin to see a decline in the days ahead,” he said. “But we got to just continue to take it day by day and look at the data.”
Your news needs your support
Since the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, The Japan Times has been providing free access to crucial news on the impact of the novel coronavirus as well as practical information about how to cope with the pandemic. Please consider subscribing today so we can continue offering you up-to-date, in-depth news about Japan.