NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. coronavirus crisis took a sharp political turn on Friday as President Donald Trump lashed out at four Democratic governors over their handling of the pandemic after having conceded that states bear ultimate control of restrictions to contain the outbreak.
The Republican president targeted three swing states critical to his re-election bid – Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia – where his conservative loyalists have mounted pressure campaigns challenging those governors’ stay-at-home orders.
Amplifying a theme that his supporters have trumpeted this week in street protests at the state capitals of Lansing, St. Paul, and Richmond, Trump issued a series of matching Twitter posts touting the slogans: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA!”
Michigan has become a particular focus of agitation to relax social-distancing rules that rank among the strictest in the nation after Governor Gretchen Whitmer, widely seen as a potential running mate for presumed Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, extended them through the end of April.
Protesters defying the restrictions from the steps of the state Capitol on Wednesday shouted “lock her up,” a chant that was a staple of Trump’s campaign rallies and originally referred to his 2016 Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
Whitmer said on Friday she was hopeful her state, which suffered one of the country’s fastest-growing coronavirus infection rates, can begin to restart parts of its economy on May 1. But she urged doing so cautiously to avoid reigniting the outbreak just as it appeared to be getting under control.
Responding to Trump’s critique later in the day, she said, “We will re-engage our economy when it’s safe,” adding: “The last thing I want to do is to have a second wave here.”
Trump also took renewed aim at one of his favorite political foils, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, in a tweet suggesting that his state, the U.S. epicenter of the outbreak, had asked for too much assistance that was never fully used.
At his televised daily news briefing, Cuomo shot back saying Trump should “maybe get up and go to work” instead of watching TV, and accused the president of favoring the airline industry and business cronies in a recent bailout package that left little for the states.
On Thursday, Trump unveiled new federal guidelines for a staggered, three-stage process by which states could gradually lift restrictions on businesses and social life as the pandemic ebbed.
Trump, who played down the coronavirus threat in the early stages, had pressed earlier to restart idled businesses as soon as May 1, declaring “total” authority to do so while branding governors who resisted his approach as “mutineers.”
In the end he acknowledged it was up to the governors to decide when and how to relax the stay-at-home orders they themselves had imposed since last month, presenting his guidelines as recommendations.
While the guidelines called for a phased-in, science-based strategy in keeping with the advice of leading health authorities, the plan hinges on widespread testing that many governors say remains beyond reach due to failings of the Trump administration to ever launch such an effort.
Trump has insisted it was up to the states to ramp up such testing.
The United States has reported more coronavirus cases than any other country, with nearly 690,000 known infections as of Friday, including more than 35,300 deaths.
‘PASSING THE BUCK’
Cuomo countered on Friday that the federal government was foisting that responsibility on the states without providing necessary financial resources.
“Is there any funding so I can do these things that you want us to do? No. That is passing the buck without passing the bucks,” Cuomo said.
While Cuomo was still speaking to reporters in Albany, New York, Trump in Washington took to Twitter to criticize Cuomo, whose state has the highest number of confirmed cases and deaths.
“Governor Cuomo should spend more time ‘doing’ and less time ‘complaining’. Get out there and get the job done. Stop talking!” Trump’s post said.
“We built you thousands of hospital beds that you didn’t need or use, gave large numbers of Ventilators that you should have had, and helped you with … testing that you should be doing.”
“How many times do you want me to say ‘thank you,’ but I’m saying ‘thank you’ for doing your job,” Cuomo said when a reporter at the briefing told him about Trump’s tweets. “This was your role as president.”
Cuomo, whose state accounts for nearly half of the country’s 33,982 deaths, according to a Reuters tally, accused Trump of repeatedly refusing to help states with ramping up testing because it was “too difficult” and “too complicated.”
Public health experts and some other state governors have said that only a comprehensive testing program would help them to safely restart business.
With some 22 million Americans seeking unemployment benefits, states are under pressure to let non-essential businesses reopen despite a shortage of diagnostic and immunological screening health experts say is needed to prevent the resurgence of the virus.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued three executive orders on Friday aimed at reopening his state’s economy, the second-largest in the country, but said the effort would be slow and gradual and that it would be reversed if any outbreaks recurred.
Reporting by Maria Caspani, Nathan Layne, Susan Heavey and Lisa Lambert; Writing by Grant McCool; Editing by Frank McGurty and Howard Goller