With 23,000 Americans dead and millions without a paycheck, President Donald Trump dimmed the lights in the White House briefing room, fired up a misleading propaganda video and boiled over.
In one of the most unchained presidential tantrums ever captured on television, Trump’s Monday display flouted every notion of calm leadership by the commander in chief in a crisis.
He claimed powers never envisioned by the Constitution and insisted his “authority is total” to order states and cities to get moving again to break out of the frozen economy. His warning came as two blocs of Eastern and Western hot-spot states banded together in an implied challenge to his vow to get people back to work soon, setting off a brewing confrontation over the power of the federal government.
During the news conference, Trump moaned that the press was not giving him credit because “everything we did was right” in the coronavirus pandemic.
Raging at reporters, the President used the campaign-style video to mislead the nation about his sluggish recognition of the threat from the virus, after once predicting a “miracle” that would make it go away. He called up his top medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, to publicly repudiate his own words Sunday on CNN, which had been interpreted as criticism of early administration actions.
When the Category Five presidential storm had blown out, Trump had offered no new guidance on the key issues – for instance, the continued inadequacy of testing, which will hamper the nation’s economic opening. He vowed that the economy would fire up “ahead of schedule” but did not explain how, when many states are at or are approaching their peak infection rates. And he appeared to warn he would try to force open state economies, including shops, schools and restaurants closed by governors and mayors. He did not explain, either, how he would convince the public to get back to normal if people did not feel confident they were safe.
“The President of the United States calls the shots,” Trump said.
But after the briefing, Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he disagreed with Trump’s interpretation of his powers, stating that the President is not a monarch.
“We don’t have a king. We have an elected president,” Cuomo said during an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett. “The Constitution clearly says the powers that are not specifically listed for the federal government are reserved for the states, and the bounds between federal and state authority are central to the Constitution – one of the great balances of power.”
The Founding Fathers “didn’t want a king, otherwise we would have had King George Washington,” Cuomo added.
Hope tinged by worrying signs over virus’ grip
Trump’s anger erupted at a time when there are encouraging signs that the virus may be reaching its apex in some hot spots, such as New York – despite a continuing terrible death toll. More than 23,000 Americans have now died and there are more than 580,000 confirmed infections.
But there are worrying indications of the virus spreading among workers vital to the food chain in meat-processing plants in South Dakota and Colorado and in supermarkets that suggest normal life is nowhere near resuming. And a crew member died from Covid-19 after serving on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the nuclear aircraft carrier that had its captain fired for warning that the disease was ravaging his command.
Shortly before the briefing, two groups of states on each coast encompassing millions of people banded together to study when and how to ease social-distancing restrictions in a way that does not lead to a resurgence of the virus.
Many local officials have warned that far more diagnostic and antibody testing – on the order of millions per day – is needed so that states can safely relax distancing precautions and isolate those who are infected.
What you need to know about stay-at-home orders
The President’s remarks raised the prospect of a massive constitutional confrontation with governors if he sticks to his position ahead of his hoped-for May 1 opening date.
And they threatened to carve the nation deeper on partisan lines between mostly Democratic-run states that have been heavily hit by the virus and GOP governors who want to please Trump politically.
Trump’s performance was a product of a weekend fuming at news coverage, including a New York Times report based on emails by officials that suggested he had waited weeks to recognize the threat of the virus and did not act quickly enough.
The report is supplemented by numerous public remarks by Trump early this year in which he predicted the virus would fizzle out in the US.
It was the latest indication of how, even in a pandemic, Trump’s primary concern is his own image. And it hinted that he believes the final verdict on how his administration handled the outbreak could be the key issue in November’s presidential election.
The irony was that the President’s tirade overshadowed some good news on the crisis, albeit at a tragic time. There are signs that the murderous rates of infection and death in hot spots such as New York and elsewhere are stabilizing. The President’s top medical lieutenants, Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, sat grim-faced in the briefing room for more than an hour while his temper raged.
But while Trump’s behavior was alarming, it is also certain to cement the divides opened by his presidency. His conservative media boosters were jubilant in their early reviews, judging that he had torched his media questioners.
The lesson of every previous Trump outburst and controversy is that his supporters are far more likely to believe his version of events than media fact checks and that the President may see some of his intended effect – causing confusion and controversy that obscures the true story of the federal response.
States call Trump’s bluff
Earlier in the day, governors on the coasts announced that they had formed their own pacts to coordinate the steps they will take to reopen the economy in their states. With that move, the governors were essentially calling Trump’s bluff, asserting their own authority hours before the President proclaimed that his authority was “total” and prepared to announce his “Opening Our Economy” task force Tuesday.
Governors on each side of the country hammered out the notion that their decisions will be driven by facts, science and public health professionals, not politics.
On Monday morning, the Democratic governors of New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Rhode Island and Massachusetts’ Republican governor announced that they each planned to name a public health and an economic official to a regional working group, along with their respective chief of staffs. That group will immediately begin working to design a reopening plan.
Cuomo noted that health officials in his state believe they have reached a plateau in cases, but he cautioned that a regional approach was necessary to avoid a resurgence. He said it was important to do so step-by-step with a “smart plan,” evaluating data at each juncture and working in concert with states in the region.
“Because if you do it wrong, it can backfire,” Cuomo said. “We’ve seen that in other places on the globe.”
“Everyone is very anxious to get out of the house, get back to work, get the economy moving. Everyone agrees with that,” he said. “What the art form is going to be here is doing that smartly and doing that productively, and doing that in a coordinated way, doing that in coordination with the other states that are in the area, and doing it as a cooperative effort, where we learn from each other.”
The New York governor said it would be important to share information, resources and intelligence.
“No one has done this before,” he said. “No other state has done it before. So it’s one step forward after research, and consultation with experts. I’m not a public health expert, but this has to be informed by experts and by data. You take one step forward. You see how it works. And then you measure the next step.”
Several Republican governors also underscored Monday that their decisions about reopening the economy would be driven by public health experts in their states.
“Governors made decisions to take various actions in their states based on what they thought was right for their state, based on the facts on the ground talking with doctors and scientists,” Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, also a Republican, emphasized in his own daily briefing that a “ton of testing” would need to be available at both the state and federal levels before residents would feel comfortable resuming business as usual.
California lays out a plan
A few hours later on the West Coast, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that he and the governors of Oregon and Washington would collaborate on their own plan, a process he said they began at the beginning of last week, “using science to guide our decision making and not political pressure.”
Newsom will outline a “bottom-up” plan for easing restrictions and making “targeted interventions” to slow the spread of the virus, a process and protocol he designed in collaboration with Washington’s Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and public health experts in the three states.
“The virus knows no boundaries, knows no borders. You can’t build walls around it and you can’t deny basic fundamental facts,” Newsom said. “We will be driven by facts, we will be driven by evidence, will be driven by science, will be driven by our public health advisers.”
West Coast leaders “each took early & decisive action to stem the spread of this disease – and it makes perfect sense that we move forward together on a shared approach to restart public life & business,” Brown tweeted.
Inslee, who dealt with the first wave of coronavirus cases in the nation, said that any successful lifting of interventions “must include a robust system for testing, tracking and isolating.”
“The West Coast is ahead of the curve on COVID-19. We’re going to make sure that stays true,” tweeted Inslee. “WA, OR and CA will work together on a shared approach for reopening our economies.”
But outbreak during his mammoth briefing, the President appeared more concerned by how his own leadership had been perceived than working with state governors – complaining that his decision to halt the entry to the US from people who had recently traveled to China had caused him to be “brutalized” by reporters.
“I have been brutalized for the last four years. I used to do well, before I decided to run for politics,” Trump said. “But I guess I’m doing OK, because, to the best of my knowledge, I’m the President of the United States, despite the things that are said.”