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Even as his administration pushes to expand the power of the executive branch, President Trump has always had a finite understanding of where his authority begins and ends. This week was especially rough on that front: On Monday, in pursuit of his goal of reopening the economy regardless of the human cost, he said that “the president of the United States calls the shots” on when state shutdowns will end. He reiterated that false message, saying that “when somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total.”
By Thursday, Trump punted on his authoritarian ambitions: According to a recording of a call with governors obtained by the Washington Post, Trump told those assembled that “you are going to call your own shots.” It’s a message that the president has returned to frequently throughout the crisis: In mid-March, Trump instructed governors in another conference call: “Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment — try getting it yourselves.” He did not mention that the federal government would then underbid states seeking out major orders of medical equipment.
In a document provided to all 50 governors around the time of the call, Trump also shared his guidelines for opening the states on May 1 — rules and a timeline that he now described as voluntary. According to CNN’s summary of the document, it encourages states to open up in three phases:
“In the first phase of reopening, the document suggests schools that are currently closed should remain so and employees who are able to telework should keep working from home. Large venues, including some restaurants, can operate under strict social distancing protocols. Gyms can open as long as they maintain social distancing guidelines, but bars should remain shuttered. The guidelines still recommend minimizing nonessential travel, and indicate vulnerable populations should remain sheltered-in-place. Phases two and three gradually decrease the recommended restrictions.
But already, states are going around federal guidelines to pursue plans safer for their respective outbreaks: On both coasts, state consortiums have emerged that will help regional economies in the northeast and Pacific determine how to open up safely. In New York on Thursday, Governor Cuomo expanded beyond Trump’s recommendation, requiring nonessential businesses to stay closed until May 15.
While Trump’s about-face was more or less inevitable as he would not have been able to override state guidelines, it’s also consistent with a larger theme of his coronavirus response: unaccountability. As Trump recruits several task forces reportedly designed to spread the blame in case the economic reopening results in a second wave of outbreaks, he has informed governors that they’re fully responsible for anything that occurs in the critical weeks ahead. In this light, Trump’s “call your own shots” message is less of a retreat than an abdication.