After a 24 hours in which President Donald Trump compared himself to Captain Bligh from Mutiny On The Bounty in asserting his “total” authority over states, he shifted course. The decision, he said on Tuesday, actually lies with the states themselves.
He just didn’t say that in so many words.
At Tuesday’s coronavirus press briefing at the White House, as questions loomed over how the U.S. would reopen vast sectors of the economy, Trump told reporters that “I will be speaking to all 50 governors very shortly, and I will then be authorizing each individual governor of each individual state to implement a reopening, and a very powerful reopening plan of their state at a time and in their manner as most appropriate.”
What some pundits quickly heard from the president was a backtracking of his insistence that the decision on reopening was up to him, a claim that generated considerable pushback from governors, constitutional scholars and some conservative commentators.
After CNN did one of their cutaways from the briefing, anchor and chief national correspondent John King said. “It was a full retreat wrapped in Trumpian bluster. ‘I will authorize the governors to do their job.’ He has no authority to do their job.” Instead, King said, what Trump was actually saying was, “I today agree that the governors are going to do as they see fit in their state, which was what the governors were saying all along, what they were hoping to do no matter what the president said.”
Trump weaved in robust rhetoric with an acknowledgment of the federal government’s role. Later in the briefing, Trump said that if his administration disagrees with a state’s decision to reopen, “we are not going to let that happen.” He didn’t say how, but then added, “We are there to watch. We are there to help. But we are also there to be critics.”
The more immediate news from the briefing was Trump’s announcement that they would withhold funding from the World Health Organization until a review of the organization is completed.
He blamed the WHO for being too slow to respond to the coronavirus and for being too willing to accept China’s word about how it had spread in Wuhan. In a now infamous Jan. 14 tweet, the WHO wrote, “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China.”
Obviously, that was false. Trump said that the WHO “willingly took China’s assurances at face value … and they defended the actions of the Chinese government, even praising China for its so-called ‘transparency.’ I don’t think so.”
He added, “The WHO’s reliance on China’s disclosures likely caused a twentyfold increase in cases worldwide and it may be much more than that.”
But the president’s criticism of the WHO quickly generated questions of why he, too, praised China for its transparency, including a Jan. 24 tweet in which he wrote, “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”
At the briefing, Bloomberg’s Jordan Fabian and later CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and later queried the president about this, but Trump didn’t directly address why he once gave credit to Beijing.
“I don’t talk about China’s transparency,” Trump insisted. “If I am so good to China, how come I was the only person, the only leader of a country, that closed our borders tightly against China.”
The larger question on the minds of others, however, was whether it is wise for the U.S. to withhold funding from the WHO during the middle of a pandemic, even with the organization’s faults.
As MSNBC cut away for fact checking Trump’s criticisms of the organization, its contributor Dr. Vin Gupta said, “If we didn’t have the WHO we would have to invent the WHO. No institution is perfect. They really had their struggles when it came to post-Ebola. But this was entirely different.”
He added, “South Korea took the same technical guidance that WHO issued on January 10, and reiterated on January 23, and acted on it. We just didn’t act on the guidance that they provided.”
As Trump does at many briefings, he sparred with a reporter, this time Playboy correspondent Brian Karem, with whom he has tangled before. More recently, Karem has sought access to the pool that is in rotation at the briefings as the White House Correspondents’ Association implements social distancing guidelines.
Even so, Trump called on Karem, and the result was, to little surprise, more confrontational moments. As he pressed Trump on the continued lack of availability of testing, the president said that it was “up to the governors” to take care of that. But Karem continued to ask Trump about states where social distancing was not being practiced, before the president told him, “Quiet.”
But Karem continued.
Trump then said, “I told them when they put this guy here, it is nothing but trouble. He’s a showboat. If you keep talking, I’ll leave, and you can have it out with the rest of these people.”
Karem stopped, Trump stayed and the show went on.