How Trump went from being a ‘backup’ to states to saying he has ‘absolute power'

While discussing the reopening of the economy recently, President Trump said that “it’s going to be based on a lot of facts and a lot of instinct.”

The problem is that on certain questions, his instincts appear to keep changing.

The key overall question is when Americans will go back into work after more than a month of lockdown. Trump has, at different times, discussed having the country “raring to go by Easter” and is now focused on an opening in early May.

Everyone, not just the president, has resorted to guesswork about when the economy will be ready to reopen. And perhaps sowing more confusion are differing messages from the White House around questions of how Americans will go back to work (all at once or gradually) and whose decision it is.

From DC as a ‘backup’ to ‘the authority is total’

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 13 : President Donald J. Trump speaks with members of the coronavirus task force during a briefing in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on Monday, April 13, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
President Trump speaks alongside members of the coronavirus task force at the White House on April 13. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Last month, as questions about whether to mandate businesses to close down and individuals to work from home if possible, Trump often seemed content to let states make those decisions.

On March 31, he said, “unless we see something obviously wrong, we're going to let the governors” decide about issuing stay-at-home orders, adding “we only would exercise if we thought somebody was very obviously wrong.”

The word that came up again and again was “backup.”

“We're really backing up the governors,” Trump said on March 22. “The governors have to go out, do their things.”

A day later he said, referring to decisions to close parts of the economy: “We’re giving the governors a lot of leeway. The governors are going to make those decisions.”

On April 1, he said “we're really here to help governors, they're the frontline of attack.” He added: “We're here and we're backing them up and there's never been a backup like we've given them.”

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 19: President Donald Trump attends a teleconference with governors at the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters,  on March 19, 2020 in Washington, DC. With Americans testing positive from coronavirus rising President Trump is asking Congress for $1 trillion aid package to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.   (Photo by Evan Vucci-Pool/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump, right, during a teleconference with governors at the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters in Washington on March 19. (Evan Vucci-Pool/Getty Images)

There were notable exceptions, of course. On March 28, the Trump publicly mulled an attention-grabbing idea. “[T]here’s a possibility that sometime today we’ll do a quarantine – short-term, two weeks – on New York, probably New Jersey, certain parts of Connecticut,” he said.

Almost as quickly, he backed down from the idea amid criticism, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who called the idea “preposterous.”

The president’s competing impulses were on full display on April 10. Specifically talking about Florida and schools, Trump said, “I like to allow governors to make decisions without overruling them, because from a constitutional standpoint, that's the way it should be done.” He quickly added his belief that, disputed by experts, that he could overrule them if he wanted.

But then later – while discussing reopening the economy overall – he recalled that “somebody said, ‘It's totally up to the president.’ I saw it this morning. It’s totally up – and it is.”

It all came to a head this week at a remarkably contentious briefing, when Trump discussed coronavirus restrictions and claimed that “when somebody's the president of the United States, the authority is total.” “The federal government has absolute power, as to whether or not I will use that power, we’ll see.”

Fact checkers, as they had for the idea of the federal government mandating quarantine orders in certain states, quickly noted that the president does not have that authority he is claiming to have.

“The president has no formal legal authority to categorically override local or state shelter-in-place orders or to reopen schools and small businesses,” was one example of the response, from Stephen I. Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas.

On reopening the economy, a move from ‘sections’ to a ‘big bang’

Trump’s rhetoric on the mechanics of reopening the economy has also undergone a shift.

For weeks, the central idea was often around on “sections” of the country reopening.

On March 24, Trump said that ultimately “the goal is to ease the guidelines and open things up to very large sections of our country as we near the end of our historic battle with the invisible enemy.”

A few weeks later, on April 8, he discussed a phased approach to opening the economy, but added that “it would be nice to be able to open with a big bang.” He then added, “we're looking at the concept we open up sections and we're also looking at the concept where you open up everything.”

The next day, one of Trump’s former top economic advisors pushed back on the “open up everything” concept in an interview on Yahoo Finance and suggested that restarting the economy will be a long process.

“This is not going to be an overnight big bang,” former National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn pointedly said.

Currently states across the country are organizing by region and are planning to assert their authority.

Coalitions of states are forming to make their own decision – regardless of the message from Washington, D.C. – about how and when to reopen.

Ben Werschkul is a producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.

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