President Trump has all but decided to begin declaring the country ready to get back to business on May 1, two current and two former senior administration officials said, but a scramble is underway inside the White House to determine how to stagger a reopening of the economy amid the novel coronavirus pandemic while also protecting Trump from any political fallout.
Impatient with the economic devastation wrought by social distancing and other mitigation measures — and fearful of the potential damage to his reelection chances — Trump has been adamant in private discussions with advisers about reopening the country next month.
Yet within Trump’s circle, officials say, there is acknowledgment that it will not be possible for the president to simply flip a switch. A return to normal likely would take many months, administration officials said, and should be orchestrated methodically and guided by medical data. For instance, officials are considering beginning with areas deemed to have the lowest risk of a major outbreak.
Trump said Tuesday night that he plans to ask the governors of all 50 states later this week to implement “a very powerful reopening plan” in their states at whatever time they deem appropriate. He said more than 20 states are in “extremely good shape” and are poised to reopen their economies very soon, “maybe even before the date of May 1.”
“Our country has to get open, and it will get open, and it’ll get open safely and hopefully quickly — some areas quicker than other areas,” Trump said at a Rose Garden news conference.
The White House is in the process of modeling testing results, death rates and other data to help guide a decision. Aides stressed that, despite the president’s fixation on May 1 as a reopening date, the timing remains fluid and no final decision has been made.
Separately, a team of government officials led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has created a public health strategy to combat the coronavirus and reopen parts of the country, according to a draft memo obtained by The Washington Post. The strategy contains detailed instructions for a phased reopening of institutions such as schools, child-care facilities, summer camps, parks, faith-based organizations and restaurants.
Although governors and mayors have the authority to impose or lift stay-at-home orders and to permit businesses and schools in their localities to reopen, recommendations or guidance from the president or federal agencies could be influential — one of the reasons Trump has called his impending decision the most important of his presidency.
In late March, Trump was persuaded by the two physicians on his coronavirus task force, Anthony S. Fauci and Deborah Birx, as well as other advisers to extend the federal social distancing guidelines for an additional 30 days, through the end of April.
Since making that decision, however, Trump has been agitating to find ways for businesses to reopen, mindful that he could end up paying a political price for the staggering number of unemployed Americans.
Inside the White House, it has been clear to officials since last week that there is no longer much of a debate — at least with the president — about starting the reopening process May 1, said numerous current and former senior administration officials, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the state of play.
“He desperately wants to reopen as much as possible on May 1,” said one former official briefed on internal discussions. “He’s been that way from the beginning, and he has not wavered. He seems determined to do it. But there’s a growing realization that you won’t be able to open everything up by May 1. Even he realizes that’s a bad idea.”
Rather, the debate this week has been over how to implement the return, what data could be used to justify the decision, and how to build public support for it to provide the president maximum political cover, according to one senior administration official involved in the discussions and a second person who has been briefed on them.
Trump’s advisers are trying to shield the president from political accountability should his move to reopen the economy prove premature and result in lost lives, and so they are trying to mobilize business executives, economists and other prominent figures to buy into the eventual White House plan, so that if it does not work, the blame can be shared broadly, according to two former administration officials familiar with the efforts.
The sprawling circle of those advising Trump includes former treasury secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., who has been in regular contact with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a friend from their days working together at Goldman Sachs.
Paulson, who helped shape the federal response to the 2008 financial crisis, has been helping Mnuchin map out possible challenges and solutions on the economic front, according to two senior Republicans familiar with their discussions.
One plan gaining traction inside the West Wing this week is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Implementing a National Return to Work Plan. One White House official said it “provides a checklist or to-do list that is basically approved by the spokesman for American business, which is what this White House is looking for.”
The White House is assembling an economic task force with a number of working groups, broken up by sectors such as financial services; energy; transportation; retail; and real estate. During Tuesday’s media briefing, Trump read aloud the names of scores of business leaders, as well as labor, religious and thought leaders, who will be consulted in coming days by the administration.
Some executives are wary the White House plan could backfire if it proves premature and leads to a public health catastrophe, according to three people familiar with the effort. Some also are concerned that under federal law, the contents of the meetings would have to become public, should the body meet a certain number of times.
Conservative advocacy groups such as FreedomWorks and the American Legislative Exchange Council are also mobilizing to help push the White House and Republican lawmakers to relax public health restrictions. Informally, they have started calling their group “Save Our Country,” although the project has no official name. The Heritage Foundation is launching a parallel set of working groups that is expected to deliver its recommendations on reopening the economy to Vice President Pence.
One idea that has emerged among these conservative groups is to push a liability shield for businesses that would insulate them from lawsuits if their employees get the coronavirus while at work, according to two people familiar with internal discussions.
White House officials are developing guidance for businesses on how to safely reopen and are focusing on how to ensure safety in what they term “super-spread areas” — office break rooms, bars and other such gathering places where the risk of spreading the virus is greatest.
Administration officials pointed to Texas as a potential pacesetter. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has quietly been talking with the White House about his own preliminary plans to reopen parts of the economy in his state, the nation’s second largest.
“We can and we must do this,” Abbott said last week, saying he would soon be outlining how businesses can reopen in Texas in a way that is safe for the public.
Stephen Moore, a conservative economist who informally advises the White House, said geography could factor heavily into federal recommendations for reopening.
“There are about 10 metropolitan-area cities, and like 90 percent of cases are in 10 metropolitan areas, so you treat those metropolitan areas differently than the rest of the country,” Moore said, adding that he has discussed this “Zip code idea” with the administration.
“You find the counties and Zip codes that don’t have the disease, and you get those things opened up,” Moore said. “They should probably have never been shut down — that’s my opinion, by the way; I’m not speaking on behalf of the White House there. But they are looking at that approach to figuring out where the economy can open up first. This isn’t rocket science.”
The administration has floated the idea of dividing the country geographically as a way to slowly reopen the economy. Trump penned a letter to the nation’s governors in late March stating that as the federal government expanded its testing and surveillance capabilities, it planned to categorize counties as “high-risk, medium-risk, or low-risk.”
At the White House news conference that day, Trump stressed the need for Americans to get “back to work,” saying he could envision a reopening scenario based on geography.
“We may take sections of our country,” Trump said at the time. “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.”
Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, was asked how such county classifications would work, since no domestic travel restrictions exist to prevent people from moving between, say, a low-risk and high-risk jurisdiction. Birx said a staggered reopening plan would hinge on “highly responsible behavior between counties.”
White House officials have stressed that any such plan would be coordinated with state and local authorities. Regardless of what Trump opts to announce, it will fall to governors and mayors to decide whether to reopen businesses and begin returning to normal in their own jurisdictions. And many governors are treading more cautiously than the president.
“Historically, people have looked to the states and they’ve looked to the governors to be the ones who make decisions in regard to health issues,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) said in an interview.
Arthur Laffer, a conservative economist who is close to the White House, said Trump and his advisers are looking at “a whole panoply of issues,” including staggering the reopening by sectors.
“Everyone wants to get the economy back and going again,” Laffer said. “Aren’t you a little stir-crazy?”
Jeff Stein contributed to this report.