WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has taken an increasingly hands-off approach to the coronavirus crisis in recent days even as COVID-19 cases and deaths have surged to record highs in a huge slice of the country, including areas where he has enjoyed strong support.
Meanwhile, governors and big city mayors in much of the United States are sending a blunt message to their constituents: Don’t expect a federal cavalry to save the day.
Throughout the crisis, the president has been quick to convey certitude, with threats to state and local officials who did not heed his warnings. But as the pandemic has continued to ravage the nation, his actions have largely been muted.
Large districts in Los Angeles, Houston and suburban Washington are among those to defy Trump's demand that schools fully reopen this fall. They announced this past week that the escalating virus cases will cause them to delay opening their buildings for in-person learning. Others districts, including New York City and Chicago, have laid out initial plans for a combination of in-person and online learning.
At the same time, governors and mayors have largely stopped pleading for more federal government help. Instead, they are making it clear that it will be on the shoulders of communities to stem the accelerating spread of the virus.
“Our future truly lies in our own hands,” Republican Gov. Mike DeWine told Ohioans this past week.
The caution coming from many statehouses and city halls contrasts with the upbeat outlook from Trump. He has limited his comments on the virus recently and shifted his attention to his administration's efforts to revive the economy and attack the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden.
But with Trump's public approval ratings sinking over his handling of the crisis less than four months before Election Day, administration officials say the president may need to pivot to a more aggressive approach.
Kellyanne Conway, a White House senior adviser, noted that polls early in the crisis showed that a majority of Americans approved of his handling of the outbreak. This was when Trump was holding near daily briefings.
“I just think the people want to hear from the president of the United States,” Conway said. “It doesn’t have to be daily. It doesn’t have to be for two hours. But in my view, it has to be.”
In the meantime, the crisis continues to worsen. On Thursday, the U.S. reported more than 70,000 new COVID-19 cases, a single day record.
The Florida Department of Health reported 156 new coronavirus-related deaths on Thursday, the most yet in a 24-hour period. It was one of 10 states to reach a record for deaths in a single day this past week, joining Alabama, Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas and Utah.
On Thursday, Trump made a brief detour during an event to spotlight his administration's deregulation record to praise himself for his handling of the pandemic.
“No administration in history has removed more red tape more quickly to rescue the economy and to protect the health of our people,” Trump said.
A day earlier during a visit to a UPS facility in Georgia, a hot spot where confirmed cases have surged, he only mentioned the virus in passing. He instead rehashed old attacks on China.
This hands-off approach to the virus contrasts with his words and actions against what he’s described derisively as the “left-wing mob,” protesters who have taken to the streets around the country to decry racial injustice following the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Trump deployed militarized federal agents to Portland, Oregon, angering city and state officials when the agents detained people far from the federal property they were sent to protect. Portland's mayor demanded Friday that Trump remove them.
Despite Trump’s optimistic outlook on the pandemic, some top public health experts on the White House coronavirus task force, most notably infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, are raising red flags.
Fauci has warned that the United States could soon see 100,000 infections per day. “We haven’t even begun to see the end of it yet,” Fauci said during a talk hosted by Stanford University’s School of Medicine.
But at this point, elected officials are looking past the White House and confronting the shifting crisis on their own terms. The talk at the local level, particularly in Democratic-run cities, seems disconnected from Trump’s assurances that a vaccine will be developed at “warp speed” and that the economy is already “getting back” to where it was before the pandemic.
A former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, said the dynamic has led to a series of state-based strategies to head off the virus.
“In some respects, it has allowed states to tailor solutions to their individual challenges and their individual resources," Gottlieb said. “And in other states it would be preferable to have a more coordinated national approach, particularly when it comes, for example, to testing, where we don’t really have a surge capacity that we can move around this country to try to get testing into the hot spots."
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, a Democrat and co-chair of Biden's campaign, laid blame squarely on Trump.
“None of us can look at the map of the country right now and have confidence that this administration has done what they need to do to keep us safe,” she said.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, wrote in The Washington Post that the White House failed to issue public warnings, draw up a 50-state strategy or effectively deliver medical gear or lifesaving ventilators from the national stockpile to American hospitals.
“It was hopeless, waiting around for him,” wrote Hogan, retelling his frustration with Trump that led him, with the help of his South Korean-born wife, to acquire 500,000 virus test kits from the South Korean government early in the crisis. “Governors were being told that we were on our own. It was sink or swim.”
Back in April, weeks into a lockdown of the economy, Trump feuded with governors over whether the president or state leaders had the authority over reopening the economy.
With Trump ceding that debate, states have settled into a scattershot approach.
Even as Trump pushes for schools to reopen, state leaders have largely ignored his rhetoric, noting that the president’s ability to pressure states to do as he says is limited by the reality that states and municipalities largely control the funding and operations of schools.
Early on, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, sought to develop a working relationship with the administration, even traveling to the White House in May to meet with the president. But as the crisis has worn on, Polis has expressed frustration with the lack of a national strategy.
“We need a coordinated national response to the coronavirus that we currently lack, but that’s not something that I, as your governor, can deliver,” Polis said. “We have to live with the president and administration we have rather than the administration that we may want.”
Amiri reported from Columbus, Ohio. Associated Press writers Susan Haigh in Hartford, Connecticut; David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan; Patty Nieberg in Denver; and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.