Even as someone prone to contradicting himself, President Donald Trump's complete reversal in just 24 hours from claiming “total” authority over the nation’s governors on reopening their states -- to then saying the decision was up to them -- marked a stunning switch.
Trump backed down from his extraordinary assertion following a torrent of backlash from governors and even members of his own party pointedly reminding him of the constitutional restraints on presidential power.
The moment also served to highlight the limits and pitfalls of the president's response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, as he has sought to simultaneously assume national credit for successes while shifting blame back to the states as shortfalls in the nation’s preparedness and response to the crisis have been exposed.
The mixed messages being sent to the public -- were stark.
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For example, Trump on Monday said it was within his presidential powers to override governors in deciding whether and how a state should reopen.
The next day, speaking in the White House Rose Garden, he reversed his position entirely, saying "the governors are responsible" and "have to take charge."
“We don't want to put pressure on anybody," he told reporters Tuesday. "I'm not going to put any pressure on any governor to open."
Some governors around the country had already begun to forge ahead in creating statewide and regional plans, in partnership with other governors, in setting the terms for an envisioned loosening of guidelines as the virus wanes.
“The president of the United States has the authority to do what the president has the authority to do, which is very powerful,” Trump argued Monday.
“When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total," he said. "That's the way it's got to be.” He said there were “numerous provisions” that granted him the authority to order a state to reopen its economy, although he and the White House have not cited any.
He added he would "rather work with the states because I like going down to a local government" and said, “As to whether or not I’ll use that power, we’ll see.”
Then on Tuesday, in what could be seen as face-saving language, the president said he would "be authorizing each individual governor of each individual state to implement a reopening, and a very powerful reopening plan of their state at a time and in a manner as most appropriate." He said he would likely speak to governors of all 50 states on Thursday.
It is unclear how and under what constitutional authority the president would be "authorizing" states to move forward with individual plans, as he claimed, and he did not elaborate. Governors do not need his permission.
The president’s about-face actually amounted to a reversal of a reversal, after he had for months said it was up to governors to acquire essential medical equipment and set the terms of shutdowns for their states, describing the federal government as a "backup.”
The president had resisted previous calls to issue a nationwide stay-at-home order by citing the Constitution’s delegation of power to the states -- the very same constitutional principle he on Monday insisted he could overrule.
“I leave it up to the governors. The governors know what they’re doing. They’ve been doing a great job,” Trump said on April 3. “I like that from the standpoint of governing, and I like that from the standpoint of even our Constitution.”
In fact, governors and local officials across the country have taken the lead in issuing stay-at-home orders, closing businesses and services and mandating enforcement of social distancing guidelines.
Trump and his administration, meanwhile, have made recommendations for how to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While helpful to state and local officials -- and to the average American seeking guidance on how to adjust their lives -- the federal guidelines are not mandatory or enforceable, and states have largely followed their own paths.
Even so, last week, Trump described a decision on when to loosen federal guidelines recommending social distancing and “reopen” the country as "the biggest decision of my life."
But a practical matter, the reality is that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendations -- while significant in influencing nationwide behavior-- were never legally binding. The real authority in lifting imposed restrictions lies with governors and local governments that have led the way in imposing those limitations.
“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 Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, told CNN.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said Trump was proclaiming "that he would be king."
“A king has total authority," Cuomo said. "That statement cannot stand.”
A top House Republican, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, tweeted that "The federal government does not have absolute power." She cited the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution.
Florida's GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, typically a strong supporter of Trump's, tweeted that decisions to modify social distancing orders "should & will be made by Governors."
"[T]he Constitution & common sense dictates these decisions be made at the state level," Rubio wrote.
Hours later, Trump had reversed course.
It was up to governors, Trump said Tuesday evening at his daily news conference. "They have to do a great job, and we're going to suggest they check people through tests or otherwise coming into their states, and they run their states very strong."
“I’m not going to say to Governor Cuomo, ‘You got to open within seven days,’" Trump said. "I want him to take his time, do it right, and then open New York. I'm not putting any pressure on the governors. Some of them don’t need pressure or not pressure. I mean, they are ready to go. And that's a good thing."
But even after backtracking, Trump clearly was not able to cede full decision-making power to the governors, hoping to maintain at least the appearance he had the final say. "They need the federal government not only for funding but they need it for advice" and for the "equipment that we have."
"We’re going to have some very strong recommendations for the governors, we’re going to work with the governors, and the governors are gonna do a good job," he said. "And if they don't do a good job, we’re going come down on them very hard. We’ll have no other choice."
When asked whether he might try to cut funding or take other steps, he declined to answer.
This report was featured in the Friday, April 17, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.
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