Donald Trump has said he is open to some states “reopening” before federal social distancing guidelines expire at the end of month, as he appeared to back off his claim of absolute authority to decide when the time is right to act.
Hours after suggesting the bipartisan concerns of governors about his assertion of power would amount to an insurrection, the president abruptly reversed course, saying he would leave it to governors to determine the right time and manner to revive activity in their states.
He said he would be speaking with governors to discuss his plans.
Mr Trump said: “The governors are responsible. They have to take charge,” but added: “The governors will be very, very respectful of the presidency.”
Democratic and Republican governors sounded the alarm after he claimed on Monday that he would determine when and how to reopen the economy, despite clear constitutional limitations on federal powers.
Mr Trump said on Tuesday that he would be authorising governors “of each individual state to implement a reopening — and a very powerful reopening — plan of their state at a time and in a matter as most appropriate”.
He added that he would support moves by states that have not been hit hard by the outbreak to ease restrictions before federal guidelines on social distancing expire on April 30.
The president said the country would open up “in beautiful little pieces”, adding that some states with low rates of infection “have fewer people and they have lots of room”.
In a departure from recent tradition, he ended his daily briefing without turning the microphone over to federal health experts, who have cautioned against moving too quickly to restart economic activity.
Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, told the Associated Press that the country is “not there yet” when it comes to the kind of testing and contact tracing needed to begin reopening the economy, but Mr Trump made clear he is intent on proceeding with his plans.
Mr Trump outlined a vision in which workers would be tested, perhaps on a weekly basis, and governors would test travellers arriving at their states’ borders, but the US is nowhere near having that kind of infrastructure, with testing still largely reserved for those with serious symptoms and results taking days to learn.
House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi criticised the president for trying to lift social distancing without adequate testing.
“The failure to test is dangerous and deadly, and without testing, we cannot resume our lives,” she said in a letter to legislators.
It comes after the latest twist in Mr Trump’s dispute with governors over who has primary responsibility for preserving public health in their jurisdictions. After weeks of saying he would leave major decisions about imposing restrictions in the hands of states, he claimed his power to ease them was absolute.
“When somebody is president of the United States, the authority is total,” he said on Monday at the White House. “The governors know that.” He declined to offer specifics about the source of his asserted power, claiming he would provide a legal briefing at a later date.
Governors in both parties made clear they saw things differently, and said they would decide when it is safe to begin a return to normal operations.
Anxious to put the crisis behind him, Mr Trump launched a new advisory council that will hash out plans to reopen the American economy, which has dramatically contracted as businesses have closed, leaving millions of people out of work.
He also directed his administration to freeze funding to the World Health Organisation, claiming the international body did not deliver adequate early reports on the virus and cost the US valuable response time.
“The WHO failed in this basic duty and must be held accountable,” Mr Trump said.