Trump’s Virus Plan Sets Him Up to Claim Credit and Pass Blame

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President Donald Trump’s decision to hand pandemic recovery over to states and businesses amounts to a bet that Americans won’t hold him responsible if there are setbacks — and that he can still claim credit if governors succeed.

The risk for Trump is that governors and top executives may be far more cautious than he’d like in reopening the U.S. for business. That’s setting up a collision over how fast to lift social-distancing restrictions that have crushed the economy, and less than 24 hours after announcing his plan, Trump couldn’t disguise his impatience.

“LIBERATE” he tweeted in support of conservatives protesting stay-at-home restrictions imposed by Democratic governors in three states the president hopes to win in 2020 — Michigan, Virginia and Minnesota.

The tweets were rebuked by Democrats, who called them irresponsible. The president attempted to explain himself at a White House news conference later Friday.

“We do have sobering guidance, but I think some things are too tough,” Trump said of state measures to curb the outbreak. “And if you look at some of the states you just mentioned, it’s too tough, not only relative to this, but what they’ve done in Virginia with respect to the Second Amendment is just a horrible thing.”

The state’s governor, Ralph Northam, signed a package of gun-violence prevention measures into law a week ago.

Risky Strategy

Trump’s strategy risks a backlash from voters who already hold a dim view of his handling of the outbreak and who will decide whether to return him to the White House in less than seven months.

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee to challenge him, said Trump had “punted” on a reopening plan. And even under the president’s guidelines, no state could resume anything resembling normal economic and social life for at least a month — far too long for some in Trump’s own party.

One conservative group allied with president, Tea Party Patriots Action, issued a statement encouraging the protests after Trump’s tweets. “We will not treat this as a ‘new normal’ once the pandemic is over,” said the group’s honorary chairman, Jenny Beth Martin.

A top medical adviser to Trump, Deborah Birx, used the term “new normal” on Thursday to describe the final phase in the president’s reopening guidelines, which would still require limited social distancing. Martin’s group has been in regular contact with the White House, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat, responded angrily to Trump’s tweets, accusing him of “fomenting rebellion.”

“The White House released a sensible plan laying out many of the guidelines that I agree are essential to follow, as we work to resume economic activity. Trump slowly read his script and said the plan was based on ‘hard, verifiable data’ and was done ‘in consultation with scientists, experts and medical professionals across government,”’ Inslee said in a statement.

“Less than 24 hours later, the president is off the rails,” he said. “He’s not quoting scientists and doctors but spewing dangerous, anti-democratic rhetoric.”

Testing Dilemma

The president and his health advisers said Thursday thathis guidelines provide states a science-based pathway to reopen that they could adapt for their own unique circumstances. Communities and companies, they said, could best decide how to ease social-distancing practices that have collapsed the economy.

The guidelines set out a three-phase process for states to reopen schools and businesses, calling on governors and corporate leaders to sort many of the hard decisions about when to they’re ready to begin and what preparations they’ll need to make.

The president even sought Friday to shed responsibility for coronavirus testing, declaring that governors, not the federal government, must expand diagnosis of cases. Business leaders and members of Congress urged Trump in conference calls this week to rapidly expand U.S. testing capacity, saying it is not yet sufficient to begin a broad reopening.

The White House says the capacity to expand testing exists, and Trump and his advisers spent much of Friday’s press briefing seeking to argue that the problem is matching testing supplies with the patients and facilities that need them. Acknowledging that many governors and hospitals have warned they lack sufficient test kits as well as the materials and personnel required to process them, the president’s health team said it’s working to inform them about other ways to perform diagnostics and better allocate supplies.

“We’ve already built sufficient testing capacity nationwide so states can begin their reopenings,” the president said.

Sinking Polls

Trump’s decision to largely delegate responsibility has the added benefit of allowing him to take credit if reopening goes smoothly in states. Whether he can dodge blame in the event it all backfires, resulting in a resurgence of infections and deaths, is questionable.

The U.S. has had more than 683,000 cases of the disease and more than 34,000 deaths so far — about as many people as the flu is estimated to have killed in the entire 2018-2019 season,according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most Americans think Trump was too slow to respond to the outbreak, that state governments will move too quickly to reopen, and that the worst is yet to come,according to a Pew Research Center survey released Thursday. Trump’s approval rating in the Gallup poll also fell this week by six percentage points, to 43% — even as the leaders of U.S. states and other countries combating the outbreak have seen their approval skyrocket.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s approval rating is 51% — up from 29% in February — according to aHarris International poll. And in Germany – where Chancellor Angela Merkel issued early stay-at-home guidance and warned citizens that huge percentages of the population could potentially contract coronavirus – the longtime leader has seen her approval rating rise to 79%, according to Forschungsgruppe Wahlen.

And New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Trump foil whose state has become the global epicenter of the outbreak, enjoys 87% approval,according to a Siena College poll released March 30.

Bold or Passing the Buck?

The president’s plan to reopen is dependent on voters accepting his hands-off approach as bold rather than the commander-in-chief passing the buck, just 200 days before he stands for re-election. At least two states took advantage of the flexibility on Friday.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, said he would allow retailers to reopen for delivery service starting April 24 and that state parks would reopen Monday with strict social-distancing requirements. And Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, a Democrat, issued an executive order allowing golf courses, parks, marinas, trails and other outdoor facilities to reopen, also with social-distancing requirements.

Biden, who hasissued his own plan to combat the coronavirus outbreak, described Trump’s as scientifically sound but thin on details and lacking authority.

“He’s decided he doesn’t have the right to make the call for the country,” Biden told CNN. The White House’s three-phase plan, Biden said, “is not irrational, but it doesn’t give you any hard guidelines.”

Some of the president’s more conservative allies bristled that the loose guidelines – which prescribe, at best, a months-long, gradual return to operations – were still too restrictive. Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves said Friday he had “real questions about this uniform, national approach” described by the White House guidance.

And the conservative House Freedom Caucus on Friday sent a letter to the president complaining that “the measures enacted to combat the virus have wreaked havoc on the American economy.”

“More government is not the answer to these economic woes—reopening the economy is the answer,” they wrote. “We are a free people with a free and fair market. The sooner we return to it, the sooner our economy will again thrive.”

— With assistance by Mario Parker

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