Trump backs down after Cuomo, other governors unite on coronavirus response

"I'm not going to put pressure on any governor to open," the president said in an about-face from his remarks on Monday.

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By Allan Smith

President Donald Trump said Tuesday he's fine with governors making their own decisions about how and when to reopen their states — a quick retreat from the day before, when he insisted that such choices were up to only him because his "authority is total."

Trump's comments in the White House Rose Garden came as states across the Northeast and along the Pacific Coast launched separate regional pacts to plan for how to open up and get their economies going again, forming united political fronts should they need to challenge Trump.

The president said that the administration will provide states with guidelines in the coming days and that he plans to speak soon with all 50 governors via conference call, but he made it clear that the governors can do as they see fit.

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"I will be authorizing each individual governor, of each individual state, to implement a reopening and a very powerful reopening plan of their state in a time and a manner as most appropriate," Trump said. "Because certain states are in much different condition and in a much different place than other states."

"The federal government will be watching them very closely and will be there to help in many different ways," he said, adding: "The governors are going to be opening up their states. They're going to declare when. They're going to know when. Some can open very, very shortly."

Trump caused a stir Monday when he tweeted that it was his decision alone whether to reopen individual states. The assertion was quickly disputed by constitutional scholars, Democrats and some leading Republicans.

At his briefing Monday, Trump said that the president "calls the shots," that governors "can't do anything without the approval of the United States" and that his "authority is total."

The authority to require businesses to close in a public health crisis is known as a "police power," and it is reserved by the Constitution to the states, not the federal government. Because the states and local officials put the shutdowns in place, they will have to be the ones to lift them.

Still, some states are more likely to follow Trump's lead, while others would be receptive to federal guidance. The president can also use the bully pulpit to push governors to reopen their states.

But he said Tuesday that he wouldn't be doing that.

"I'm not going to put pressure on any governor to open," Trump said. "I'm not going to say to Governor Cuomo, 'You have to open within seven days.'"

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said earlier Tuesday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" that Trump would create a "constitutional crisis" if he tried to override any of the governors.

"If he says to me, 'I declare it open,' and that is a public health risk or it's reckless with the welfare of the people of my state, I will oppose it," Cuomo said. "And then we will have a constitutional crisis like you haven't seen in decades, where states tell the federal government, 'We're not going to follow your order.' It would be terrible for this country. It would be terrible for this president.

"We don't have a king — we have a president, and that was a big decision," Cuomo added.

Trump responded on Twitter, saying Cuomo was "calling daily, even hourly, begging for everything, most of which should have been the state's responsibility, such as new hospitals, beds, ventilators, etc. I got it all done for him, and everyone else, and now he seems to want Independence! That won't happen!"

On Monday, Cuomo and the governors of six other Northeastern states — Phil Murphy of New Jersey, Ned Lamont of Connecticut, Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania, John Carney of Delaware and Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island — announced that they will band together to, as Cuomo said, "help devise a plan to slowly reopen parts of each state." On the West Coast, Washington, Oregon and California announced a similar pact to plan for their states' reopenings.

"What you wish would happen is that the federal government would be engaged, talk to the states and try to make this work in the best way possible," Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, told NBC News. "That might mean encouraging these kinds of consortiums of states for a very good reason."

Republican political analyst Susan Del Percio, a former Cuomo aide, said that while it's not uncommon for states to work together in such regional pacts in a crisis, she hadn't seen a group as large as the one created among Northeastern governors.

"But at the same time, make no mistake, whether it's in the tri-state area or the Northeast or nationally, New York has to be operational," said Del Percio, who is an MSNBC political analyst. "That's what's going to send that message that the president's looking for. Let's not forget, the president's looking for a political win by saying everything's open, and he's not going to get that unless New York agrees."

Ultimately, people need to feel personally safe before the economy ramps up, she said.

"And who are they going to trust? Are they going to trust the president to say, 'Things are great, go ahead,' or are they going to trust their respective governors who have been giving them the straight facts?" she added.

At his briefing Tuesday, Cuomo said he wasn't looking to have a fight with Trump.

"President did his briefing last night, and the president was clearly unhappy," Cuomo said. "The president did a number of tweets this morning that he's clearly unhappy. Did a tweet about 'Mutiny on the Bounty' and governors are mutineers. I didn't follow the exact meaning of the tweet, but the basic essence of the tweet was that he was not happy with governors and this was a mutiny. The president is clearly spoiling for a fight on this issue."

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Earlier in the day, Trump tweeted: "Tell the Democrat Governors that 'Mutiny On The Bounty' was one of my all time favorite movies," referring to a decades-old film about a tyrannical ship captain whose crew leads a mutiny against him.

"A good old fashioned mutiny every now and then is an exciting and invigorating thing to watch, especially when the mutineers need so much from the Captain," he continued. "Too easy!"

Trump said Cuomo "understands how we helped him," but he opted against further confrontation. The president has eyed reopening parts of the economy around the start of May, and his administration late last week announced that it's launching a task force to work toward that goal.

Whether there is vastly more testing for the virus than at the present time — which governors and leading experts have said is key to be able to start reopening — will be up to the governors, Trump said. Some governors have expressed fear of a disaster later in the year if reopening occurs without more widespread testing.

"The worst scenario," Cuomo said, "would be if we did all of this, we got that number [of infected] down, everybody went to extraordinary means, and then we go to reopen and we reopen too fast or we reopen and there's unanticipated consequences, and we see that number go up again."