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Trump claims ‘total’ authority to reopen economy, over govs

President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Friday, April 10, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

(AP) — President Donald Trump claimed the “total” authority Monday to
decide how and when to reopen the economy after weeks of tough social
distancing guidelines aimed at fighting the new coronavirus. But
governors from both parties were quick to push back, noting they have
the primary constitutional responsibility for ensuring public safety in
their states and would decide when it’s safe to begin a return to normal

Democratic leaders in the Northeast and along the
West Coast announced separate state compacts to coordinate their efforts
to scale back stay-at-home orders or reopen businesses on their own
timetables, even as Trump argued it was his call.

“When somebody
is president of the United States, the authority is total,” Trump said
at Monday’s White House coronavirus briefing. “The governors know that.”

he would not offer specifics about the source of that claim, which
governors asserted was a vast power grab, or his plan to reopen the
economy. The president’s guidelines have little force. Governors and
local leaders have issued orders that carry fines or other penalties,
and in some jurisdictions extend into the early summer.

going to write up papers on this,” Trump said, brushing aside questions
about his claim of absolute authority to order states to reopen, adding,
“The governors need us one way or the other.”

Anxious to put the
twin public health and economic crises behind him, Trump was already
discussing with senior aides how to roll back federal social distancing
recommendations that expire at the end of the month. But it has been
governors and local leaders who have instituted mandatory restrictions
meant to slow the virus, including shuttering schools and closing
non-essential businesses. And they have indicated they wouldn’t tolerate
pressure to act before they deem it safe to reverse their orders.

President Mike Pence backed up Trump’s claim, also without offering
specific grounding, saying that at times of emergency, the powers of
president are “unquestionably plenary.”

Trump can use his bully
pulpit to pressure states to act or threaten them with consequences, but
the Constitution gives public health and safety responsibilities
primarily to state and local officials.

“All of these executive
orders are state executive orders and so therefore it would be up to the
state and the governor to undo a lot of that,” New Hampshire Republican
Gov. Chris Sununu said on CNN.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a
Democrat, said, “Seeing how we had the responsibility for closing the
state down, I think we probably have the primary responsibility for
opening it up.”

Wolf joined governors in New York, New Jersey,
Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island in agreeing to coordinate their
actions. The governors of California, Oregon and Washington announced a
similar pact. While each state is building its own plan, the three West
Coast states have agreed to a framework saying they will work together,
put their residents’ health first and let science guide their decisions.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, stressed the efforts would take time.

house is still on fire,” Murphy said on a conference call with
reporters. “We still have to put the fire out, but we do have to begin
putting in the pieces of the puzzle that we know we’re going to need …
to make sure this doesn’t reignite.”

Though Trump abandoned his
goal of rolling back social distancing guidelines by Easter, he has been
itching to reopen an economy that has dramatically contracted as
businesses have shuttered, leaving millions of people out of work and
struggling to obtain basic commodities. The closure has also undermined
Trump’s reelection message, which hinged on a booming economy.

claim that he could force governors to reopen their states represents a
dramatic shift in tone. For weeks 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.

While Trump can
use his daily White House briefings and Twitter account to try to shape
public opinion and pressure governors to bend to his will, “there are
real limits on the president and the federal government when it comes to
domestic affairs,” John Yoo, a University of California at Berkeley law
school professor, said on a recent Federalist Society conference call.

government doesn’t get opened up via Twitter. It gets opened up at the
state level,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, said.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, a supporter of Trump, said the question of
when to lift restrictions would be “a joint effort” between Washington
and the states.

Talk about 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.

frustration was amplified by comments made by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the
nation’s top infectious diseases expert. Asked Sunday on CNN if acting
earlier could have saved lives, Fauci said that, “obviously, you could
logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing and you started
mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives.”

Trump responded
by reposting a tweet that referenced Fauci’s comments and included the
line, “Time to #FireFauci,” raising alarms that Trump might consider
trying to oust the 79-year-old doctor. But at Monday’s briefing, Trump
said: “I’m not firing him. I think he’s a wonderful guy.”

has complained to aides and confidants about Fauci’s positive media
attention and his willingness to contradict the president in interviews
and from the briefing room stage, according to two Republicans close to
the White House. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were
not authorized to discuss internal conversations.

Trump has told aides that he knows blowback to removing Fauci would be fierce and that — at least for now — he is stuck with the doctor. On more than one occasion, however, he has urged that Fauci be left out of task force briefings or have his speaking role curtailed, according to the Republicans.

Mulvihill reported from New Jersey. Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire in New York; Alan Suderman in Richmond, Virginia; Holly Ramer in Hopkinton, New Hampshire; John O’Connor in Springfield, Illinois; Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin; David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan; and Mark Sherman and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.