Trump says he will be 'authorizing' governors to reopen their own states

U.S. 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.

Trump retreats from his claim of absolute authority to decide when states should reopen

People in face masks ride the subway in New York on Monday. As the state's death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic topped 10,000 people, Gov. Andrew Cuomo participated in a news conference announcing a task force of Eastern states to examine how to go about reopening the economy. (Ted Shaffrey/The Associated Press)

U.S. 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 during the White House daily coronavirus briefing. "They have to take charge." Still, he insisted, "The governors will be very, very respectful of the presidency."

Earlier Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he would not abide by any order from Trump to reopen his state in an unsafe manner during the coronavirus outbreak.

Trump said on Monday he believed the president has "total authority" over states in the U.S. coronavirus response, a stance that is not supported by the constitution and was immediately rejected by legal experts and some governors.

"If he ordered me to reopen in a way that would endanger the public health of the people of my state, I wouldn't do it," Cuomo said in an interview with CNN.

In a separate interview he told MSNBC that if the federal government tried to impose an order to reopen, "we will have a constitutional crisis like you haven't seen in decades, where states tell the federal government we're not going to follow your order."

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is shown wearing a mask during an April 11 news conference in Trenton. New Jersey, one of the states hardest hit by the pandemic, is part of an Eastern U.S. task force with six other states. (Chris Pedota/The Record/The Associated Press)

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.

The U.S. constitution gives state authorities the power to police citizens and regulate public welfare.

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

On Monday, ten U.S. states announced they were co-ordinating plans separately from the White House to reopen businesses shut by the coronavirus.

The West Coast states banding together were California, Oregon and Washington. On the East Coast, they are as follows: Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

The governors of the states forming joint task forces said they were doing so due to their interdependence in trade and transportation. Each state will ultimately make its own decisions on reopening based on specific needs, Cuomo said.

Collectively the ten states generated 38.3 per cent of the total U.S. economic output in the fourth quarter of 2019, highlighting how much of the U.S. economy depends on its most populous states. California and New York, the biggest and third-biggest states respectively, account for about 23 per cent of total U.S. economic output, figures from the Bureau of Economic Analysis show.

People line up outside the United States Post Office, Will Rogers Station, wearing masks and using physical distancing guidelines in Santa Monica, Calif., on Monday. California, Oregon and Washington, in the same time zone and linked by trade and transportation, announced a joint initiative on Monday. (Damian Dovarganes/The Associated Press)

Governors of those states and others including Michigan, Illinois and Louisiana, have previously complained that Washington has not assumed authority of medical supply chains, leading to what they have characterized as a time-consuming and costly bidding process for scarce equipment, with allegations of profiteering by private suppliers.

With the exception of Massachusetts, the states in the joint initiatives are all led by Democratic governors. But Republican governors Chris Sununu of New Hampshire and Larry Hogan of Maryland were among those who said Monday that Trump's interpretation of the constitution was not one they shared.

Even constitutional scholar Jonathan Turley, who defended Trump's authority with respect to his dealings with Ukraine during House impeachment hearings, tweeted that the president's view of his powers was mistaken.

Turley followed up with an editorial in the Washington Post on Tuesday.

"Trump has alluded to a type of pan-economic power to force states to prioritize economics over pandemic concerns. Not only does no such express power exist, it would contradict core principles of our constitutional system," he wrote.

Turley said Trump was correct in earlier briefings when he asserted that the state governments "have primary authority to prepare for and deal with a pandemic."

While Trump boasted of his authority, he did also suggest Monday he would prefer to defer to governors.

"I'd rather have them make the decision," he said.

White House task force announced

The White House on Monday announced it was organizing its own council to consider how to reopen the economy.

Among those expected to be part of the new team: Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and White House economic advisers, past and present, Kevin Hassett and Larry Kudlow. New White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is expected to chair the effort.

Senior White House aides Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump had been expected to be part of the team, but the president said Monday they would not be included. It would work separately from the coronavirus task force led by Vice-President Mike Pence, though there could be some overlap of participants.

Trump said Monday the new panel would seek counsel from various industries and include committees representing fields like manufacturing, transportation and religious interests.

A sign is seen lit outside a house during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease in the New York City suburb of Piermont late Monday. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

The expected new group, so far, largely resembles the upper echelon of the Trump administration. Some ethics experts and participants in past councils created by Trump voiced concern that the president may not be open to using the new panel to explore diverse viewpoints and hard truths about the best path forward.

"It doesn't work if you bring in the hallelujah chorus," said Thea Lee, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning Washington think-tank. Lee served on a short-lived manufacturing council that Trump established early in his presidency.

Trump has expressed hope regular activity can start happening again in May, though he allowed there would likely be regional variations.

For his part, Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Tuesday that a May 1 target date for reopening the economy was "a bit overly optimistic," citing a lack of critical testing and tracing procedures.

"We have to have something in place that is efficient and that we can rely on, and we're not there yet," said Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in an interview with The Associated Press.

More than 24,450 people have died of the virus in the United States overall, with 584,000 confirmed infections, according to tracking by Johns Hopkins University.

Cuomo said Wednesday that 10,834 deaths have now occurred in New York state, representing nearly 45 per cent of all reported American deaths.

With files from CBC News and The Associated Press

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