Trump claims he can overrule states on ending COVID-19 shutdowns

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer

With millions of Americans locked down at home and out of work, President Trump asserted on Monday his authority to reopen the country at a time of his choosing, although questions remain over the limits of his power because he is not the one who shut it down.

“For the purpose of creating conflict and confusion, some in the Fake News Media 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,” tweeted Trump on Monday. “Let it be fully understood that this is incorrect. It is the decision of the President, and for many good reasons. 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!”

The comments echo a statement Trump made at Friday’s White House briefing.

“I like to allow governors to make decisions without overruling them, because from a constitutional standpoint, that’s the way it should be done,” said Trump. “If I disagreed, I would overrule a governor, and I have that right to do it.  But I’d rather have them — you can call it ‘federalist,’ you can call it ‘the Constitution,’ but I call it ‘the Constitution.’ I would rather have them make their decisions.”

Over the past month, Trump has been an on-and-off-again supporter of social-distancing steps to slow the pandemic. But he has not imposed such measures on the whole country — and probably could not, except by declaring martial law. He has advocated following CDC guidelines about limiting gatherings and social contact, washing hands and disinfecting surfaces. But steps such as closing schools, restaurants, theaters and shops have been taken by state or local officials, or by businesses themselves.

Vice President Mike Pence listens as President Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on Friday. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Medical experts warn that attempts to reopen things too quickly could lead to a resurgence of the virus. Because there is no vaccine for the coronavirus, medical professionals battling the disease are at risk, and a surge of cases combined with a shortage of protective gear and intensive care beds could overwhelm hospitals. However, Trump has also been pushed by business leaders and conservative media personalities to get the country back to normal, seeking to reboot the economy, which has seen millions of job losses over the past month.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, pushed back against Trump’s tweets on Monday.

“It was our call through executive order … to go to essential businesses only versus having to make the tough decision to shut down nonessential businesses to going to groups of 10 or less in terms of social meetings and thing of that nature,” Sununu said in an interview with CNN. “What we did with restaurants with takeout orders. All of these are state executive orders and so therefore it would be up to the state and the governor to undo a lot of that.”

“The states closed,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, when asked about Trump’s comments. “It is an interesting construct that it wasn’t the federal responsibility to close the economy but it is the federal responsibility to open the economy. If it’s your authority to open, why wasn’t it your authority to close? That’s an obvious question.”

On Sunday, Politico reported that the White House still had no roadmap of how to restart the economy. The outlet said that while they were seeking private business leaders for a second task force devoted to the economy, they were struggling to finalize the list because “not all companies wanted to participate, said a handful of lobbyists, because some wanted to keep a low profile after Trump got into public spats with corporate giants like 3M over the production and sale of medical masks.” 

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu tours a makeshift medical facility on a basketball court at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Trump does have the power of the bully pulpit because his daily briefings on the virus reach millions who still give him high marks for his response to the pandemic. There’s little reason to doubt that if Trump began broadcasting every day that it was time for Americans to return to their normal life, millions would heed his advice. But in jurisdictions where a governor or mayor had put restrictions in place, tweets or statements from Trump would not supersede those orders.

There is also the question of whether businesses that typically draw crowds would see their regular business. Would younger people who are less at risk for the disease still flock to bars, as happened in many places on St. Patrick’s Day weekend? Probably. But would Major League Baseball or the National Basketball Association cram thousands into stadiums and arenas for games if medical experts were warning against it — risking headlines about how they helped spread the coronavirus in their city? What about movie theaters, concert venues, malls and airports? If the death toll continues to tick up and horror stories about churches, families and neighborhoods stricken by the virus spread, how eager will Americans be to get back to normal?

If Congress fails to provide an adequate legislative response for working Americans — whether that’s increased unemployment insurance, direct cash payments or various types of debt or housing relief — then there will be pressure to get back to work. But if large parts of the population are still staying home, it’s difficult to imagine the economy or stock market quickly recovering the ground it has lost in the past month. Other countries have implemented legislation to reimburse businesses for a portion of their payrolls if they keep workers on the job, but the most recent legislation passed by Congress wasn’t nearly as robust. 

In late March, Trump proposed the idea of opening the country back up by this past Sunday’s Easter holiday because “I just thought it was a beautiful time. It would be a beautiful time, a beautiful timeline. It’s a great day.” Amid warnings this could spark a new wave of infections, the White House backed off the idea. 

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, who was a leader in the coronavirus response, made clear his view that the government’s first priority should be saving lives. “Protecting people and protecting our economy are not mutually exclusive,” DeWine said. “The fact is, we save our economy by first saving lives. And we have to do it in that order.”

“Some of the messaging coming out of the administration doesn’t match,” said Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. “We don’t think that we’re going to be in any way ready to be out of this in five or six days or so, or whenever this 15 days is up from the time that they started this imaginary clock.”

DeWine and Hogan are both Republicans.

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Click here for the latest coronavirus news and updates. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please refer to the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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