Updated at 7:43 p.m. ET
Parts of the United States could relax their pandemic mitigation countermeasures before the end of the month, President Trump suggested on Tuesday, although the details aren’t clear.
Trump used his daily briefing at the White House to tease the prospect that more than 20 states might be able to re-open in some form or change their practices before May 1 — even though he also said the federal guidelines on social distancing and other practices would stay in effect until then.
Trump promised a national plan for re-opening and normalization soon and said he intended to talk with all 50 governors on Thursday amidst a running dispute about where his power begins and ends relative to their choices about the public health disaster.
Trump appeared to attempt to resolve the questions about federalism by describing a scenario in which he would use his power to grant governors discretion — with caveats and provisos.
“I will … be authorizing each individual governor of each individual state to implement a reopening — and a very powerful opening plan — of their state at a time and in a manner as most appropriate,” Trump said.
There are major questions about which level of officialdom prevails on the question about how and when parts of the United States start to try to get back to normal after the partial dormancy implemented to slow the spread of the virus.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, for example, a Democrat with whom Trump has sparred during the coronavirus disaster response, said that she would reserve for herself some of the key decisions about what is best for her state.
“We’re probably the best ones to be able to make a decision when it’s time to safely re-engage our economies,” she told NPR on Tuesday.
Groups of big East Coast and West Coast states announced on Monday they would decide by regional consensus about how to approach their strategies for normalcy given how closely they’re connected by metropolitan areas, transit and interdependent economies.
On Tuesday Trump likened that to a “mutiny.”
Tension persists over federalism
At the Tuesday briefing, Trump described a model in which he uses the power he claims he has over the governors to authorize them to act on their own.
The federal government would continue to support the pandemic response, he said, and Trump hinted that he might try to authorize re-opening some states before May 1, within the federally recommended time horizon for social distancing and other mitigation measures.
More than 20 states, Trump said, are in “extremely good shape,” suggesting they might be able to move on a timetable quicker than the worst afflicted metropolitan areas such as New York City.
But the president also tried to stress that he would keep the federal guidelines in force through the end of April and that the encouragement he wanted to give some states won’t be a license or incentive to act before they’re ready.
“I’m not going to put any pressure on any governor to open,” Trump said.
Elsewhere in the briefing, however, Trump also said that he might try to give himself a veto over the governors’ plans: “If we disagree with it, we’re not going to let them open,” he said.
More than 600,000 Americans have been diagnosed with coronavirus cases, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University. More than 25,000 Americans have been killed in the pandemic and Tuesday was the deadliest single day so far, with around 2,400 deaths reported.
Relief legislation unlikely this month
One announcement not made at Tuesday’s briefing was about an agreement for more coronavirus relief legislation.
Talks appear frozen between Trump, Republicans and Democrats — led in the House by Speaker Nancy Pelosi — over the next round of assistance for an economy badly battered by the pandemic.
The House and the Senate both said on Tuesday they would not return until May 4, putting the earliest possible date for action on any legislation a few weeks away.
Trump and congressional leaders agree in principle on the need for more support for the economy but have struggled to get from that consensus to a nitty gritty agreement that can pass both houses of Congress.
Pelosi excoriated Trump in a letter to Democrats on Tuesday that blasted him in direct terms for what she called lying to Americans about the coronavirus disaster and for what Pelosi called the weakness of the management of the response.
“The truth is because of an incompetent reaction to this health crisis, the strong economy handed to Donald Trump is now a disaster, causing the suffering of countless Americans and endangering lives,” Pelosi wrote. “The truth is a weak person, a poor leader, takes no responsibility. A weak person blames others.”
The outspoken tone of the speaker’s letter suggested that a gulf remains for now between her and the administration in terms of negotiating another coronavirus bill.
Advisory council promised
Trump did not appear to have a final list of members of the committees he’s said he would appoint him to advise him on re-opening and normalization. That would be coming soon, he said, along with a national plan.
On Tuesday, the president read a long list of companies and their CEOs he said could be involved, although he also conceded he was waiting to hear back from of them.
Trump name-checked a number of titans of American business, from Apple CEO Tim Cook to fast food conglomerate Yum Brands, as well as “thought-leaders” from think tanks and religious leaders.
The president also said he intended to begin talking by phone with elected officials, union leaders and others.
Grudge renewed with World Health Org
Trump said on Tuesday he was directing what he called a “halt” to funding of the World Health Organization, which he has sought to blame for the scale of the coronavirus pandemic.
It wasn’t immediately clear what legal authority or legislation prevails in the case of U.S. funding for the W.H.O. or whether Trump has the unilateral power to direct the “halt.”
Sometimes when Congress appropriates funds it gives a president discretion over how they’re used; sometimes it does not. In the Ukraine affair last year, the Government Accountability Office concluded that Trump’s withholding of assistance for Kiev violated the law.
Trump’s budget proposal from earlier this year — a political document with no chance of passage in the Democratically controlled House — already proposed cuts to the W.H.O. and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The president said on Tuesday that during what he called the “halt,” his administration would conduct what he called a “review” of the U.S. relationship with the W.H.O.
In Trump’s telling, the international organization was too credulous of Chinese claims about the coronavirus in the early days of the outbreak and too critical of Trump’s decisions, including the restrictions he imposed on travel to the U.S. from China.
The United States is the biggest single source of funds for the W.H.O. and Trump said he worried about the value derived from those payments.
“With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic we have deep concerns about whether America’s generosity has been put to the best use possible,” Trump said.