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Tensions Between Trump and Governors Escalate with Push to Reopen Country

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Tensions Between Trump and Governors Escalate with Push to Reopen Country

2020-03-27 18:38:35

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Jay Inslee (Image source: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons)

Donald Trump is not getting along well with the country's governors at a time when he really needs to. He joined a call with them and was grilled by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), a former 2020 presidential candidate. The president also repeated in the call that he would like to reopen the country by Easter. 

Trump sent a letter to the governors, informing them that his administration is creating new guidelines that will categorize the risk level for different counties so that some areas that are less affected by coronavirus could go back to work while others could retain the stay-at-home initiatives.

It still doesn't erase from most people's minds that public health experts believe it's too soon to be abandoning the social distancing rules. It's particularly upsetting to governors in states where the virus is spreading quickly. Besides, what was on their minds was not ending the initiatives earlier – getting needed supplies was what they wanted to address. 

Inslee argued in a conference call with Trump and the governors for the president to take more dramatic federal action to get his state more medical supplies, according to four people familiar with the call.

Trump noted the administration was ready to be the "backup" for states, and Inslee jumped in to say, "We don't need a backup. We need a Tom Brady," referencing the former New England Patriots quarterback who is known to be friendly with Trump.  

Inslee asked him to use the Defense Production Act to have private companies manufacture supplies such as masks and ventilators. Trump had previously resisted taking that step after initially saying he would. The president responded defensively and told the governor he and the federal government have already done a lot for Washington and other states and listed a number of actions.

"The president is using the DPA every day as quiet leverage to enhance what is already the greatest mobilization of America's industrial base since World War II," said Peter Navarro, White House trade adviser in a statement. "These private enterprises are eager to assist and have said 'yes' to helping the country at every turn, so DPA hasn't been needed yet. He added that "Seattle has received considerable inventory." 

Inslee spoke to reporters after the call and said, "I am not going to go into great detail, but I will say that I told them that the states should not be competing against each other. We are grateful for their assistance in what they have provided so far."

While there have been mounting bipartisan calls to Trump to use his powers to force private companies to help with supplies, business leaders are lobbying him to not invoke the law, and advisers have warned him that doing so would bring a backlash and cut into his argument against socialism going into the election, according to two administration officials. 

Lee Saunders, a union leader representing health-care workers, said the impossible situation has already occurred, and health workers in New York are wearing garbage bags because hospitals are short on protective gowns.

"This is a train wreck happening in slow motion right before our eyes," he told reporters. "Do the moral thing, Mr. President: get those nurses and health-care workers the protective gear they need by invoking the Defense Production Act." 

Trump referred to reports of tension on the governors call as "fake news" during a White House news briefing. "I would say, one person — a little, tiny bit of a raising of a voice, a wise guy a little bit," he said, not identifying Inslee. "But he's usually a big wise guy — not so much anymore. We saw to it he wouldn't be anymore."

With the news that unemployment had its largest weekly increase ever, Trump again brought up his desire to reopen the country and restart the economy by Easter. Medical experts, though, say it would undermine efforts to "flatten the curve." 

"People want to go back to work," said Trump. "I'm hearing it loud and clear from everybody. We have to go back. This is the United States of America. They don't want to sit around and wait. ... It's going to happen pretty quick. We may take large sections of our country that are not so affected and do it that way."

The White House's coronavirus response coordinator, Deborah Birx, said many states have been collecting data to aid in which areas to open again, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are playing a major role. Asked how the government would stop people in high-risk areas from using businesses in low-risk areas, she said the decisions would be left up to local officials. 

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) raised issues with Trump as well on the call. New Orleans and his state overall are bracing for what could be coming their way with numbers of cases and deaths on the rise. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) pleaded for Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. to get their own testing facility since their region is home to the government's workforce.

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) objected to the federal relief package that is treating the District of Columbia as a territory. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who is also a doctor, asked Birx for best- and worst-case scenarios and was told she's still working on it. 

Gov. Jim Justice of West Virginia (R) had concerns about nursing homes, Gov. Henry McMaster (R-SC) said small businesses can't sustain too much more of the failing economy, and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) appreciated that Trump understood some areas are less affected by the virus and could restart sectors of their economy.

But the biggest concern for the governors was the shortage of personal protective equipment for health-care workers. The governors want a federal response so that the states aren't competing with each other.  

Trump's biggest concern was getting the country open for business again. "A lot of progress is made, but we've got to go back to work," he later told reporters. "We may take sections of our country, we may take large sections of our country that aren't so seriously affected, and we may do it that way, but we've got to start the process pretty soon, so we'll be talking to you more about that next week."

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