Coronavirus government response updates: Fauci says his 'saved lives' comment not about Trump

Fauci's comments come after the president retweeted the hashtag "#FireFauci."

President Donald Trump is not considering firing Dr. Anthony Fauci, his top expert on infectious disease, even after appearing to publicly rebuke Fauci in a retweet Sunday night, according to White House spokesman Hogan Gidley Monday afternoon.

"This media chatter is ridiculous -- President Trump is not firing Dr. Fauci," Gidley said in a statement. "The President’s tweet clearly exposed media attempts to maliciously push a falsehood about his China decision in an attempt to rewrite history.

"It was Democrats and the media who ignored Coronavirus choosing to focus on impeachment instead, and when they finally did comment on the virus it was to attack President Trump for taking the bold decisive action to save American lives by cutting off travel from China and from Europe. Dr. Fauci has been and remains a trusted advisor to President Trump," Gidley said.

Trump himself said later Monday he's "not firing" Fauci.

Fauci said Sunday that the Trump administration "could have saved lives" had firm social distancing guidelines been enforced earlier, but there was "pushback about shutting things down."

"We make a recommendation. Often, the recommendation is taken. Sometimes, it's not," Fauci told CNN Sunday, calling it a complicated decision. "It is what it is. We are where we are right now."

At Monday's White House briefing, Fauci walked back the comments, saying said he used a "poor choice of words" in answering a "hypothetical question" and "that was taken as a way that maybe somehow something was at fault.”

Trump retweeted a former Republican congressional candidate's attack on Fauci, including the hashtag "#FireFauci," amid a flurry of tweets Sunday night, sparking questions around Fauci's fate on the task force as the president continues to reject any criticism of his response to the pandemic that has now killed more than 22,000 Americans.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus,  at the White House on April 13, 2020, in Washington.
President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, at the White House on April 13, 2020, in Washington.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

With the White House hoping to reopen parts of the country by May 1, and Trump set to announce as early as Tuesday what he's called the "opening up the country council," some experts, such as Fauci, have recommended a "rolling reentry" into normal lives, as the president weighs what he calls "the biggest decision of my life."

While Trump and many in his administration are eager to find ways to get Americans back to work, they'll likely face some limitations, as several governors have already instituted stay-at-home orders through May.

President Donald Trump gestures while he speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, at the White House on April 13, 2020, in Washington.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

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Here are Monday's most significant developments in Washington:

  • Fauci tries to clarify answer to what he calls a 'hypothetical question' about 'saved lives'
  • Trump says he's not going to fire Fauci
  • Trump plays campaign-style video to defend handling of his response
  • Trump says a president's 'authority is total' and governors 'know that'
  • Coronavirus stimulus checks arrive via direct deposit payments for some Americans this week

Here are the latest developments in the government response:

PHOTO: Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci speaks as President Donald Trump listens in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House on April 13, 2020, in Washington.
Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci speaks as President Donald Trump listens during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House on April 13, 2020, in Washington.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Fauci tries to clarify answer to what he calls a 'hypothetical question' about 'saved lives'

President Trump opened Monday’s briefing by tossing within minutes to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top expert on infectious diseases, who said in a Sunday talk show interview that the administration "could have saved lives" if the U.S. had acted sooner.

Fauci said he wanted to clarify his answer then to what he called “a hypothetical question," saying answering them can sometimes get you "into some difficulty."

"The nature of the hypothetical question was if, in fact, we had mitigated earlier, could lives have been saved? And the answer to my question was, as I always do, and I am doing right now, perfectly honestly saying, yes. I mean, obviously," Fauci said, before saying that Trump took his first recommendation as soon as it was given.

His answer, he said, was "taken as a way that maybe somehow something was at fault."

“The first and only time that Dr. Birx and I went in and formally made a recommendation to the president to actually have a quote ‘shutdown’ in the sense of not really shutdown, but to really have strong mitigation,” Fauci emphasized.

“Obviously there would be concerns by some that, in fact, that might have some negative consequence. Nonetheless, the president listened to the recommendation,” he said.

Asked why he was making the clarification, Fauci responded testily, saying, "Everything I do is voluntarily. Don't even imply that."

"I'm not firing. I think he's a wonderful guy," Trump said later.

Trump plays campaign-style video to defend handling of his response

Refusing to accept any criticism of his administration’s response, President Trump then played a roughly four-minute video of news clips in a campaign-style montage praising his handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

President Donald Trump gestures toward a video monitor during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus at the White House on April 13, 2020, in Washington.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

“Please, if you could put it up,” Trump said, before playing the video. “We could give you hundreds of clips like that from governors including Democrat governors. We could give you hundreds of clips just like that.”

Asked by ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl who out the video together, Trump said it was compiled by White House social media director and assistant to the president Dan Scavino “in a period of less than two hours."

“We have the governors of California, New Jersey, New York,” Trump continued. “Ventilators were going to be a problem. They did not have a problem. They got tremendous numbers of ventilators.”

Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was one of the first national figures to criticize the federal government’s response and announced a “geographically coordinated plan” with at least six states in the hot-spot metropolitan area: Connecticut, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island earlier Monday.

Meanwhile on the West Coast, governors of California, Oregon and Washington also announced an agreement Monday to work together as a compact on a framework for reopening.

The coalitions do not appear to be coordinated with the federal government.

Trump says he's not going to fire Fauci

Asked why he had retweeted someone who used a #FireFauci hashtag, Trump answered, “I retweet somebody. I don’t know. Someone said they thought I was going to fire him. I am not going to fire him,” Trump said, trying to brush off the tweet as healthy controversy.

“If I put somebody's opinion up, you know, I do not mind controversy. I think controversy is a good thing, not a bad thing. But I want it to be honest controversy,” he said.

Asked if he saw the hashtag before hitting send, Trump said, “Yeah, I notice everything.”

Anthony Fauci, Deborah Birx, Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin and Rear Adm. John Polowczyk listen during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, April 13, 2020, in Washington.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

In insisting he doesn’t have any plans to fire the nation’s top infectious disease expert – despite his retweet of a tweet that called for just that -- Trump said they are on the same page and that “I like him.”

But the president qualified that his professed admiration for Fauci is not shared by all.

“Not everybody is happy with Anthony, not everybody is happy with everybody. I will tell you we have done a job the likes of which nobody has done. The mobilization, getting of equipment. Nobody has ever done a job like this,” Trump said.

President Donald Trump answers questions from the press during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus at the White House on April 13, 2020, in Washington.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Trump says a president's 'authority is total' and governors 'know that'

When asked directly about the two cohorts of regions, in the Northeast and along the West Coast, coordinating their responses to the pandemic, President Trump said he wouldn't undermine their efforts but also that "they can't do anything without the authority of the president."

"The president of the United States has the authority to do -- what the president has the authority to do, which is very powerful. The president of the United States calls the shots. If we weren't here for the states, you would have had a problem in this country like you've never seen before. We were here to back them up. We more than backed them up. It's a decision for the president of the United States," Trump said. "With that being said, we'll work with the states."

"When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total. That's the way it's got to be," Trump added. "The governors know that."

Later in the briefing, Vice President Pence offered a stronger defense than the president did himself in explaining how the president might exert absolute authority because of extra powers available at times of emergency.

“In the long history of this country, the authority of the president of the United States, during national emergencies, is unquestionably plenary. You can look back through times of war and other national emergencies,” Pence said. “We are going to give them guidance, and as the president indicated, we will continue to respect the leadership and partnership we forged with every governor I America. But this is an unprecedented time.”

When pressed on his use of “total authority” over states, the president said he wouldn’t have to use it because he’s getting along with the nation’s governors -- while noting they rely on the federal government.

"The fact that I don't want to exert my power is much different,” Trump told ABC's Jonathan Karl when asked about previous comments that he wanted to leave decisions on closures at the state level.

“The federal government has absolute power -- it has the power. As to whether or not I’ll use that power, we’ll see,” Trump said. “I would rather work with the states because I like going down to a local government.”

“It is not going to be necessary because the governors need us one way or the other because ultimately, it comes with the federal government. That being said, we are getting along well with the governors and I feel certain that there won't be a problem,” Trump said.

Trump also floated that new guidelines would be "coming soon" and a national reopening could come even sooner than the reported target date of May 1.

“We're close to completing plan to open our country hopefully even ahead of schedule. That's so important. We will soon finalize new and important guidelines to give governors the information they need to start safely opening their states,” Trump said.

You’ll be hearing over the next few days,” Trump says when asked if it’s possible to reopen the U.S. economy by May 1. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said earlier at the briefing there could be a decision by the end of the week.

Trump gave a preview into how the economic task force will be structured, saying that there will be various committees such as transportation, religion and manufacturing, and that more details will come Tuesday. He noted that the committee already knows "what he wants" and that new guidelines will subsequently be coming soon.

"Ideally we will be learning from them and we will be able to do that and put everything we learned from those calls into our new guidelines so we will have new guidelines coming soon," Trump said.He also said that daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner will not be on the task force.

Moments after the president finished speaking, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a phone interview with CNN that if the president presented a plan that was irresponsible, “I would oppose it legally.”

“The Constitution does not go out the window in an emergency," Cuomo said. “We don’t have a king. We have an elected president.”

President Donald Trump listens as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House, Monday, April 13, 2020, in Washington.
Alex Brandon/AP

Mnuchin: $1200 direct deposits 'ahead of schedule'

Mnuchin also said the direct deposit of $1200 payments to many Americans was going smoothly.

"We're very pleased that we’re ahead of schedule on delivering the economic impact payments. These were what was known as the “checks in the mail” that we want to deliver in direct -- direct deposit. This is ahead of schedule," he said.

"We started processing those last Friday. We expect that over 80 million hard working Americans will get the direct deposit by this Wednesday. And we know how important that is to all of those hard working Americans, many at home not working at the moment," Mnuchin said.

From earlier today:

'#FireFauci' follow up: White House says Trump takes suggestions of Fauci and Birx

ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl has asked the White House whether the president's "#FireFauci" retweet was an indication he is sending Fauci a message -- or if he no longer has confidence in him.

A senior White House aide responded: "There has been three mitigation recommendations made to the President by his team of doctors and advisors. All recommendations have been met with immediate implementation orders and no ambiguity. Any suggestion that the President ignored Dr. Fauci or Dr. Birx's mitigation plan is incorrect."

--ABC News' Jonathan Karl

Trump says that his authority to open country overrides governors' orders

After repeating for weeks that the federal government is a “backup” to the states as the U.S. battles the coronavirus outbreak, President Donald Trump tweeted Monday morning that “for many good reasons” it is “the decision of the president” to reopen states, even if governors or local officials have their own conflicting orders in place.

The president has repeatedly said that when it comes to personal protective equipment and ventilators, states should be responsible for procuring their own supplies, but he has not dictated whether states must enact stay-at-home orders or business closures. Most governors, instead, have taken matters into their own hands, with more than 40 enacting some form of stay-at-home order to date.

Several of those local orders extend beyond the May 1 reopening that the White House is said to be eyeing.

--ABC News' Elizabeth Thomas

The U.S. Supreme Court building, March 27, 2020, in Washington, D.C.
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

Supreme Court to teleconference oral arguments in May -- including Trump financial records cases

In an unprecedented step, the United States Supreme Court will for the first time hear oral arguments by teleconference in May, seeking to resolve a number of urgent cases that include President Trump's appeal of subpoenas seeking his financial records, amid the ongoing pandemic.

The announcement confirms that justices will hand down several major decisions on politically-charged issues in time for the November presidential election.

They will rule on whether the president must surrender his records to congressional and state investigators; whether states can require delegates to the Electoral College to cast ballots based on the popular vote; and whether the Obamacare contraceptive mandate is constitutional.

The move to telephone conference is remarkable for a court steeped in tradition and famous for resisting pressure to use technology to make proceedings more accessible, ABC News' Senior Washington Reporter Devin Dwyer reports.

--ABC News' Devin Dwyer

The USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) enters the port in Da Nang, Vietnam, March 5, 2020.
Nguyen Huy Kham/Reuters, FILE

Sailor on coronavirus-stricken USS Theodore Roosevelt dies

A sailor from the USS Theodore Roosevelt has died from COVID-19 complications on Monday, four days after he was admitted to an intensive care unit in Guam, the Navy said.

The sailor, whose name has not been released, tested positive for COVID-19 on March 30. The sailor was taken off the ship and put at an isolation house at the naval base in Guam where he received medical checks twice a day, according to the Navy.

The USS Theodore has remained in the news since last week's resignation of Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, who had dismissed the aircraft carrier's captain Brett Crozier -- calling him "stupid" or "naive" -- after the leak of a memo in which he urged Navy officials to promptly evacuate the ship amid the coronavirus outbreak.

There have been at least 585 confirmed infections among the crew.

--ABC News' Luis Martinez

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