President Donald Trump has claimed “total” authority to decide how and when to reopen the US economy after weeks of social distancing.
Governors from both parties have been quick to push back, noting they have primary responsibility for ensuring public safety in their states and would decide when it is safe to begin a return to normal operations.
Mr Trump would not offer specifics about the source of his asserted power, which he claimed, despite constitutional limitations, was absolute.
Mr Trump said at a White House briefing: “When somebody is president of the United States, the authority is total. The governors know that.” He has been discussing with senior aides how to roll back federal social distancing recommendations that expire at the end of the month.
While Mr Trump has issued national recommendations advising people to stay at home, it has been governors and local leaders who have instituted mandatory restrictions, including closing schools and non-essential businesses. Some of those orders carry fines or other penalties, and in some jurisdictions extend into the early summer.
Governors made clear they would not tolerate pressure to act before they deem it safe.
The government doesn’t get opened up via Twitter. It gets opened up at the state level
New Hampshire Republican governor Chris Sununu told cable news channel CNN: “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.
Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, said: “The government doesn’t get opened up via Twitter. It gets opened up at the state level.”
Meanwhile, governors were banding together, with New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Rhode Island agreeing to co-ordinate 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.
“The president of the United States calls the shots,” he said, promising to release a paper outlining his legal argument. Mr Trump can use his bully pulpit to pressure states to act or threaten them with consequences, but the US constitution gives public health and safety responsibilities primarily to state and local officials.
Though Mr Trump abandoned his goal of beginning to roll back social distancing guidelines by Easter, he has been itching to reboot an economy that has dramatically contracted as businesses have closed, leaving millions of people out of work and struggling to obtain basic commodities. The closure has also undermined Mr Trump’s re-election message, which hinged on a booming economy.
Mr Trump’s claim that he could force governors to reopen their states also represents a dramatic shift in tone. For weeks Mr 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.