WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump declared Monday that he, not governors and mayors, will decide when to “open up the states,” a claim at odds with reality but in line with his effort to claim credit for any positive developments in the battle against the coronavirus — and to blame others for any problems.
After leaving it to state and local authorities to order millions of Americans to stay at home, a confused process that has created patchwork rules around the country, Trump tweeted that reopening the economy “is the decision of the President,” and not the officials who shouldered the responsibility of closing most schools, shops and non-essential services.
Several governors signaled Monday that they are working with one another, not taking their cues from the White House. California Gov. Gavin Newsom and his counterparts in Washington and Oregon will work together on a plan to lift restrictions and reopen economies along the West Coast, while six Northeastern states announced a similar plan to coordinate.
Trump’s efforts to claim false credit, and his need for both sycophants and scapegoats, is hardly a new phenomenon. But it has intensified during this legacy-defining crisis as he, like most Americans, has been largely locked inside, watching as the death toll steadily creeps up — topping 23,000 on Monday.
As a result, Trump has been increasingly consumed with what he views as negative news coverage, according to four people who spoke with him in recent days, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity. He appeared to spend most of the weekend watching, and tweeting about, reports he saw on cable TV.
Trump’s focus, the people said, has been primarily on stories about his own performance. As he has let off steam to his nearly 77 million Twitter followers, he has grumbled privately to allies, complaining at one point about New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo receiving more favorable news coverage than he has, one person said.
“He sits around and he watches the news, and he needs to stop doing that,” said Barry Bennett, a former campaign adviser for Trump.
Bennett said Trump’s instinct to assign blame and lash out at critics is borne of frustration and instinct.
“He typically controls the news cycle. Now he’s just participating in the news cycle because nobody wants to talk about anything else other than COVID-19,” he said.
On Sunday, the president even offered what appeared warning shot to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, re-tweeting someone who had added “#FireFauci” to a post praising the administration’s early response.
Earlier Sunday, Fauci acknowledged in a CNN interview that acting earlier to impose social distancing and state-at-home rules “could have saved lives” but that such measures faced “a lot of pushback.”
Since Trump declared a national emergency exactly one month ago, after weeks of dismissing the coronavirus threat as insignificant, he has unabashedly boasted about his administration’s response at near-nightly White House briefings, while blaming delays in testing and shortfalls of medical supplies on an ever-expanding list of scapegoats: China, the World Health Organization, former President Barack Obama, Democrats, the media and others.
Trump has lashed out at governors who criticized the federal response, suggesting he may withhold aid to those who aren’t “appreciative” enough, and repeatedly claimed that first-responders are “happy” with his efforts despite widespread reports of bottlenecks, shortages and frustration.
The White House is considering cutting U.S. funding for the WHO, the United Nations agency responsible for international public health, for acting too slowly to raise the alarm against the pandemic — the same criticism that many level against Trump.
The president’s nightly tirades and accusations help obscure the administration’s slow initial response and several still-unfulfilled promises made during the growing pandemic.
When Trump declared a national emergency alongside Vice President Mike Pence in the Rose Garden on March 13, for example, they promised to quickly create a website in collaboration with Google that would allow anyone to identify a local testing site for the coronavirus, and to set up drive-through test sites outside Walmarts and other major retailers. Neither has happened on any scale.
In his briefings, Trump tends to shrug off questions about his earlier promises, or respond with accusations of bias against him.
“This is very consistent with how everything for him is personal,” said Michael D’Antonio, the author of the 2015 biography “The Truth About Trump.” “He filters information not by quality, but by whether it serves his preconceived ideas and his need.”
Trump’s determination to be credited for the eventual decision to “reopen” the economy, which will hinge on a consensus by state and local leaders and members of the public that it’s safe to ease social distancing efforts, aligns with his instincts as a promoter, D’Antonio said.
“He is treating this as if the nation is a hotel that had been closed for renovation and is going to have a grand reopening and everyone should be invited,” he said.
Presidential historian Timothy Naftali, a professor at New York University, said the coronavirus crisis offered Trump “an opportunity that doesn’t often come to presidents” not just to show growth but to show commanding leadership and to bring the country together.
“He failed, because he’s never been able to get beyond himself,” Naftali said. “He shouldn’t be wasting an ounce of energy on feuds. But it’s Trump against the world all the time.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., sought to nudge the president away from one possible scapegoat and toward a more obvious one, tweeting Monday, “#FireFauci? For what?” and noting that China, which Trump has already blamed for the pandemic, “did & continues to mislead own people & world.”
But some pushing the president to prioritize reopening the economy over public health concerns have been vocal about their frustration with Fauci.
“I think its time … for Dr. Fauci to move along,” Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., told KFYI-AM on Monday. “I mean he shouldn’t have a seat at the table.”
There is no evidence beyond Sunday’s tweet that Trump is likely to dismiss or demote Fauci. The doctor’s popularity as a trusted voice amid the crisis is hardly lost on the president, although the two have strenuously disagreed at times behind closed doors.
Fauci’s approval rating stood at 78% in a Quinnipiac University poll last week, 32 points higher than Trump’s rating. On Friday, the president even joked that he’s encouraged Fauci to run against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. Both are from the Bronx.
In any case, those urging Trump to fire Fauci overestimate the president’s power.
“He can’t just fire him. He’s a career employee,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that focuses on improving efficiency of the federal government.
Fauci has held his job leading the infectious disease unit at the National Institutes of Health since 1984, serving presidents in both parties. His boss at NIH, Francis Collins, is a political appointee held over from the Obama administration. But even if Collins wanted to fire Fauci, it would legally have to be for cause.
Civil service protections were created precisely to protect government employees from political retaliation.
On Monday, the White House responded to inquiries about Fauci’s status by criticizing the media, asserting that such questions were driven by an innate bias rather than a reaction to the president’s Twitter feed.
“This media chatter is ridiculous — President Trump is not firing Dr. Fauci,” deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said in a statement. “Dr. Fauci has been and remains a trusted adviser to President Trump.”
(Times staff writer Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.)
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