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Coronavirus Updates: Trump Claims Power Over Governors

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The United States now leads the world in the number of recorded deaths from COVID-19. Some 22,000 Americans have been killed, according to the latest tally from Johns Hopkins University. More than 10,000 of them are New Yorkers. But New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said today his state may be turning a corner.

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ANDREW CUOMO: I believe the worst is over if we continue to be smart. And I believe we can now start on the path to normalcy.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

No one knows exactly what that path will look like, but Gov. Cuomo announced today that he and five other governors in the Northeast are banding together to build a regional plan on when to reopen. Meanwhile, California, Oregon and Washington state announced their own western states pact with a similar goal. And then tonight, President Trump fired back, asserting his own authority to decide who opens when during a testy update from the White House coronavirus task force.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The president of the United States calls the shots. If we weren't here for the states, you would have had a problem in this country like you've never seen before.

CHANG: All right. Here to talk about these latest developments are NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson and White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe.

Hey to both of you.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hello.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hello there.

CHANG: Ayesha, let's start with you. President Trump - he's been pretty consistently focused on defending his record on the coronavirus response so far, so tell us a little more about what he said tonight.

RASCOE: He has been focused on it, but today was really striking. He spent at least 30 minutes at the top of the briefing really only trying to make the case that the administration had moved quickly and made all the right decisions when it came to the virus. Here he is arguing that his actions lowered the deaths projected by earlier models.

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TRUMP: Cut it in half. Take the million, and cut it in half. That's 500,000 people would have died. Now that number we would have reached, OK? That would have been easy to reach if we did nothing, so we did the right thing. And our timing was very good.

RASCOE: He even played this campaign-style video with selective clips highlighting his action on the coronavirus and positive things that governors have said about him. And this was all in response to news reports saying that Trump was slow to act. And Trump has also been kind of talking about wanting to transition back to a functioning economy. And so he's been talking about, you know - he's working with medical - his medical experts to make sure he does that in the right way.

CHANG: OK. But, Mara, President Trump - I mean, we just heard him. He's insisting at today's briefing that he will work with the states. But he - ultimately, he alone would be the one to order states to reopen schools and businesses. So let me ask you, who actually has the power to do that?

LIASSON: Well, Ailsa, you are a lawyer. And I think you know...

CHANG: (Laughter).

LIASSON: ...That he doesn't have the power that he's claiming for himself. Look; what was really striking about today - first, as Ayesha said, there was this half-hour about who has praised him, who has criticized him, how the media has been unfair, including the playing of this campaign ad. But then the message was very clear. He said, my authority is total - the authority of the president is total. And here's an example of what he said.

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TRUMP: We have local government that, hopefully, will do a good job. And if they don't do a good job, I'd step in so fast. But no, they can't do anything without the approval of the president of the United States.

LIASSON: Now, that's...

CHANG: They can't do anything without the approval.

LIASSON: You hear the clamor in the room.

CHANG: You're right. Yep.

LIASSON: You hear the clamor in the room because they're saying, who told you that? That's just not true. Look. What I think the president is doing - don't forget. He, at one point, said, I don't take responsibility at all. He said, we are a backup. We are not a shipping clerk. It's up to the governors. I think what the president wants to do is claim total authority and zero responsibility. Remember. You have the governors out there talking about, the worst is over. He doesn't want the governors to get out in front of him when things might be turning and maybe we're out of the horrible part of this crisis and we're into reopening the government. And he wants to make sure that anything good that happens - going back to work, you know - is to his credit. Anything bad that's happened in the past couple of weeks - he's made it very clear he doesn't want to take any responsibility for that.

CHANG: Well, he does say that he's going to be announcing a council that will be focused on this decision of when to reopen the country. So let me ask you, Ayesha, who will be on this council? And I'm confused because - how different is this council from the coronavirus task force that Vice President Pence runs?

RASCOE: We don't know yet who will be on it, but Trump said there will be some big names. And it's supposed to be announced on Tuesday. He did also say today that there will be committees focused on various industries, including transportation, manufacturing and also maybe something focused on, like, religious leaders and religious groups. We do know who will not be on the council. And that's Ivanka Trump in Jared Kushner, the president's daughter and son-in-law and, also, his White House advisers. They will not be on it, according to President Trump. And it really is unclear how this new group is going to interact with the existing task force. And that's been a complaint from some critics - is that you don't know who's in charge.

CHANG: Well, there have also been some calls in right-wing circles for firing Dr. Anthony Fauci from the current coronavirus task force. Things escalated yesterday after a tweet from President Trump. And I understand the White House and Dr. Fauci addressed this today. Tell us what they said.

RASCOE: So Dr. Fauci attempted to clarify this interview that he gave on CNN yesterday, in which he conceded that an earlier shut down of the economy could have saved lives. Fauci did not take that back, but he stressed that Trump had listened to and followed all of his recommendations. And he said - but he did say that he shouldn't have said that there was pushback from the administration. Here's more on that.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: So it was a poor choice of words. There wasn't anybody saying, no, you shouldn't do that.

RASCOE: Trump, for his part - he said that he and Fauci are on the same page. And he denied that he was trying to send any type of message when he sent that tweet with the #FireFauci. What he said - he was just, you know, saying that that was someone's opinion, and that's why he sent the tweet.

CHANG: Mara, what do you make of this back-and-forth with Dr. Fauci?

LIASSON: But he also said - somebody said, did you not notice that the tweet you retweeted had the #FireFauci on it? And he said, oh, I notice everything, or something to that effect, right?

RASCOE: Yes. He said, I notice everything (laughter).

LIASSON: I notice everything. So he's - we still don't have an explanation of, why would the president of the United States retweet a tweet that said, fire Fauci? Now, what's interesting is the White House was very adamant today. They issued a statement saying, he's not going to fire Fauci. They're on the same page. And this has the added benefit of being true. The president has taken Fauci's advice. He did not open up the economy on Easter, as he originally had said he would like to do. So he has taken the advice of the public health experts. Dr. Fauci is the gold standard here. He has tremendous credibility. The New Yorker magazine just called him the most trusted man in America. He has much higher approval ratings than the president - very popular. There is no incentive, political or otherwise, for the president to fire Fauci, so I don't really know why he would knowingly retweet something. And I don't think that mystery has gotten cleared up.

CHANG: Well, really quickly, speaking of approval ratings, President Trump's defense of his response comes as he's facing sagging approval ratings and critical news reports. So who is he trying to reach when he's defending himself right now? And is it effective?

LIASSON: I think he's trying to reach everyone. It's not effective so far because his numbers have been dropping. The briefings have not been working for him. Republicans are complaining about them, saying he should do less of them.

CHANG: All right.

LIASSON: He should get off the TV screen.

CHANG: OK.

LIASSON: But he doesn't want to leave any criticism unanswered.

CHANG: All right. That is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson and White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe.

Thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you.

RASCOE: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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