Invoking the movie “Mutiny on the Bounty,” President Donald Trump suggested Tuesday that governors’ objections to his claim of absolute authority over when to lift guidelines aimed at fighting the coronavirus were tantamount to insurrection.
Democratic and Republican governors sounded alarm about a federal power grab a day after Trump asserted he had the ultimate say on when and how to reopen the economy after weeks of tough social distancing guidelines. Trump, meanwhile, said he was relishing the fight with state officials — particularly those in hard-hit states run by Democrats — who have voiced fears that Trump's ambitious timetable could lead to a resurgence of the virus.
“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,” Trump tweeted Tuesday, adding, “Too easy!”
Anxious to put the crisis behind him, Trump has been discussing with senior aides how to roll back federal social distancing recommendations that expire at the end of the month. But he repeatedly declined to offer specifics about the source of his asserted power, which he claimed, despite constitutional limitations, was absolute.
“When somebody is president of the United States, the authority is total,” Trump said at the White House. “The governors know that.”
But governors in both parties made clear they saw things differently, noting they have primary responsibility for ensuring public safety in their states and would decide when it’s safe to begin a return to normal operations.
“The president’s position is just absurd,” said New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo in an appearance Tuesday on “CBS This Morning.” “It’s not the law. It’s not the Constitution. We don’t have a king. We have a president.”
New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu told CNN that, “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.”
While Trump has issued national recommendations advising people stay home, it has been governors and local leaders who have instituted mandatory restrictions, including shuttering schools and closing nonessential businesses. Some of those orders carry fines or other penalties, and in some jurisdictions they extend into the early summer.
Trump's Monday comments came not long after Democratic leaders in the Northeast and along the West Coast announced separate state compacts to coordinate their efforts to scale back stay-at-home orders or reopen businesses on their own timetables.
In the Northeast, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Rhode Island agreed to coordinate their actions. And the governors of California, Oregon and Washington announced a similar pact, saying they will work together and put their residents’ health first and let science guide their decisions.
While Trump can use his bully pulpit, including his daily White House briefings and Twitter account, to try to threaten states with consequences and pressure governors to bend to his will, “there are real limits on the president and the federal government when it comes to domestic affairs,” said John Yoo, a University of California at Berkeley law school professor.
Trump’s claim that he could force governors to reopen their states also represented a dramatic shift in tone. For weeks Trump had argued that states, not the federal government, should lead the response to the crisis. Indeed, he refused to publicly pressure states to enact stay-at-home restrictions, citing his belief in local control of government.
Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, a supporter of Trump, said the question of when to lift restrictions would be “a joint effort” between Washington and the states.
But Cuomo said that, if Trump ordered him to reopen New York’s economy before he thought it was ready, he would refuse. “And we would have a constitutional challenge between the state and the federal government and that would go into the courts and that would be the worst possible thing he could do at this moment,” Cuomo said.
Cuomo later told reporters that Trump was “clearly spoiling for a fight on the issue," saying, “The worst thing we can do with all of this is start with political division and partisanship.”
Trump slapped back earlier Tuesday, accusing Cuomo of “calling daily, even hourly, begging for” lifesaving supplies. “I got it all done for him, and everyone else, and now he seems to want Independence!” he tweeted. “That won’t happen!”
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, tweeted that he's “not running for office to be King of America” and respects “the great job so many of this country’s governors — Democratic and Republican — are doing under these horrific circumstances.”
Though Trump abandoned his goal of beginning to roll back social distancing guidelines by Easter, he has been itching to reboot an economy that has dramatically contracted as businesses have shuttered, leaving millions of people out of work and struggling to obtain basic commodities. The closure has also undermined Trump’s reelection message, which hinged on a booming economy.
Mulvihill reported from New Jersey. Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire in New York and Mark Sherman in Washington contributed to this report.