WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump calls himself a “wartime president” and favors martial metaphors when describing the coronavirus pandemic, but as shown with his about-face this week on whether Georgia should start reopening businesses, the commanding general’s orders to the troops can, at times, be clear as mud.
Trump has issued contradictory advice to Americans and contradictory or inchoate directives to governors, mayors, Congress and the scientists who flank him at daily news briefings intended to showcase his leadership. Much of the confusion surrounds when and how to lift safety restrictions that have closed businesses, schools, parks and casinos as a means of slowing transmission of a virus that has killed more than 40,000 Americans.
On Thursday, the day before barbershops, nail salons and other businesses were to reopen in Georgia over Trump’s objection and against the advice of the task force he empowered to guide the national response, Trump spoke glowingly about states that are reopening.
“You see states are starting to open up now, and it’s very exciting to see,” Trump said at the day’s televised briefing.
He did not mention Georgia, whose Republican governor he called out by name on Wednesday as moving too fast to reopen.
“We’re coming out of this,” Trump said at the start of the briefing Thursday, where he pointed to preliminary research that sunlight helps kill the virus.
Later on, under questioning, Trump said social distancing recommendations may be extended into the summer or beyond.
“We may, we may go beyond that. We’ll see where it is,” Trump said. “At some point we won’t have to do that, but until we feel it’s safe, we’re going to be extending.”
He later emphasized that he was “not happy” with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican ally who has attributed his election to Trump’s support, for the steps he is taking to open up his state, leaving murky what actions he thinks are appropriate and which he does not.
Trump’s science advisers have said the nation has yet to reach its peak level of infections and deaths and have warned, as recently as Wednesday, that the virus will persist for months at the least.
Trump’s mixed messages have been put in sharp relief by his interactions with governors, and with Georgia in particular.
The president has criticized Democratic governors as closing down too much, and now he has broken with Kemp as opening up too fast.
He said first that he had the power to direct state-by-state opening, and then that governors were in charge of those decisions for themselves.
Sixteen states have released plans for reopening, Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday. Thirteen of those have incorporated the White House guidelines issued last week. Pence congratulated Missouri, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Idaho and did not mention Georgia or South Carolina, which also is lifting restrictions.
Kemp initially followed what he said he thought were Trump’s wishes in devising a plan to open up sectors of the state’s economy beginning this week. Trump pulled the rug out from under Kemp on Wednesday, saying “I disagree strongly” with the governor’s plan, which Trump noted would not comply with the guidelines for a phased lifting of restrictions set by his coronavirus task force.
“I think spas and beauty salons and tattoo parlors and barbershops in phase one — we’re going to have phase two very soon — is just too soon. I think it’s too soon,” Trump said.
Even as he did so, Trump undercut the force of those recommendations by saying governors have to make their own decisions. And then he undercut that somewhat, by saying he is still the ultimate authority.
“I want him to do what he thinks is right, but I disagree with him on what he’s doing,” Trump said. “But I want to let the governors do,” Trump said, then broke off. “Now, if I see something totally egregious, totally out of line, I’ll do.”
Trump went further Thursday, speaking the governor’s name in a contemptuous tone.
“I wasn’t happy with Brian Kemp,” he said repeatedly, adding that he could have “stopped” Kemp from acting had he chosen to do so.
Kemp has stuck with the plan, anyway, and watched as congressional Republicans including Rep. Douglas Collins, R-Ga., lined up with Trump to say Kemp was wrong.
“The president wants the country open. I want the country open. The governor wants the country open. The problem is, how do you do it? And I think that’s the problem with leadership,” Collins said on “Fox & Friends.” Kemp’s recent decision not to pick Collins to fill out the term of an empty U.S. Senate seat the congressman wanted created tension between the two.
“Leadership is about communicating,” Collins continued.
Georgia health officials reported Thursday a weekly increase in both the state’s death toll and confirmed novel coronavirus cases, numbers that came amid controversy over the governor’s decision to allow businesses to reopen, starting Friday.
On Thursday, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported that the state’s coronavirus death toll had risen to 872 — nearly 100 more than confirmed Monday, the day Kemp announced his plans. The number of confirmed virus cases also climbed to more than 21,500, which was more than 2,000 higher than the number the state reported Monday.
The governors of Maryland and Virginia and the mayor of the District of Columbia on Thursday urged the Trump administration to continue allowing federal employees to work remotely.
In a letter to the acting director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the regional leaders asked the government to maintain coronavirus telework policies. They noted that the reopening guidance released by the White House last week instructed employers to encourage teleworking in the first phases of recovery.
“While of course any essential employee should continue to report to work, we know that a continued federal telework policy will help save lives by allowing more of our region’s 360,000 federal employees to work from home,” wrote Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, and District Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat.
All three jurisdictions have restrictions in effect until at least mid-May.
Trump’s toggle between cheerleading for a reopening and warning against a swift reopening reveal his conflict between the presidential duty of informing worried Americans, many of them now out of work, and his natural inclination to put a good face on bad news.
For weeks in March and April, Trump talked up the benefits of an unproved drug, hydroxychloroquine, as a treatment for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
“What do you have to lose? It’s been out there for a long time, and I hope they use it,” he said April 4.
He cited the recovery of a Michigan lawmaker who had been given the drug and invited her to the White House to tell her story in front of reporters.
He has not recommended the anti-malarial drug since a study published Tuesday showed the drug had no benefit and was linked to higher rates of death for hospitalized Veterans Affairs patients.
On Thursday, he equivocated when asked directly about his view now.
“We’ll see what happens. We’ve had a lot of very good results and we had some results that perhaps aren’t so good. I don’t know. I just read about one,” Trump said.
The president has said people should stay home if they can, but he refused to criticize protesters, some wearing “Make America Great Again” garb, who have gathered in public in Michigan and other states to demand an end to lockdowns and other public health safety measures.
“LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” Trump tweeted last Friday, apparently in support of political protests against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, and her coronavirus restrictions.
Asked on Saturday whether protesters were rebelling against the kind of restrictions he himself has advocated, Trump tried to keep the focus on governors.
“I don’t know. I mean, I notice there were a lot of protests out there. And I just think that some of the governors have gotten carried away,” he said.
During Saturday’s news conference, Trump criticized restrictions in Michigan and Virginia, both swing states with Democratic governors, and declined to disavow adviser Stephen Moore, a member of Trump’s reopening advisory group, who had decried the “injustice” of virus restrictions in Wisconsin, another swing state.
“Well, there is a lot of injustice,” Trump said, not long after praising the unity and responsiveness of states.
“When you look at Virginia, where they want to take your guns away, they want to violate your Second Amendment; when you look at — I mean, look, I’m getting along very nicely with the governor of Michigan, but she has things — don’t buy paint, don’t buy roses, don’t buy — I mean, she’s got all these crazy things,” he said.
Trump announced Wednesday, in honor of Earth Day, that he would soon reopen national parks. He gave no date or details.