If you needed another reminder of the profound difference in messaging between state governors and the Trump White House, then look no further than the online news conference that Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf held Wednesday.
Twenty-four hours after Trump brazenly disregarded the advice of actual scientists and public health experts with his announcement that he’d like to scrap social distancing requirements and reopen the country by Easter, Wolf went the other way by announcing he was putting two more counties under a stay-at-home order as infections soared past 1,000 confirmed cases.
Nor was Wolf in any hurry Wednesday to follow Trump’s lead. He deferred politely when he asked whether he’d defy the White House if it sent Americans back to work, saying he’s always had a “nice working relationship” with the federal government.
But Wolf’s intent was made clear when he said he was concentrating on giving the state the time it needed to contain the pandemic.
So, thanks, but no thanks, Mr. President.
With cases increasing in New York, California, Pennsylvania and other states, Trump walked back his stance some later in this week, acknowledging that some places might not be ready. He also pledged to consult with experts.
But Trump’s serial fabrications, soberly fact-checked on the fly by America’s new family physician, infectious disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci, have come to pose such a threat to public health that some media critics have cautioned networks against airing his remarks in real time.
That danger was reinforced by the death of an Arizona man after Trump wrongly touted the medical form of chloroquine as a possible treatment for the virus. The Arizona man reportedly took chloroquine phosphate, a chemical typically used to clean fish tanks.
In the absence of that leadership up top, and the White House’s insistence on subcontracting the heavy lifting of fighting the pandemic to the states by refusing to fully invoke the Defense Production Act, it’s been up to governors such as Wolf, New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Washington’s Jay Inslee to step into the breach.
Some television pundits have taken to calling Cuomo, whose briefings are too Noo Yahwk for words, “America’s Governor.” It’s a tad hyperbolic, but not far from wrong. For his part, Cuomo has said he’s acting as he always does — just on a grander stage.
“You want a pat on the back for sending 400 ventilators?” Cuomo recently grumbled about a federal government shipment to New York, the New York Times reported. “What am I going to do with 400 ventilators when I need 30,000?” he said later. “You pick the 26,000 people who are going to die because you only sent 400 ventilators.”
With his own plainspoken style, Cuomo has provided vivid illustration of the massive challenges that states face in trying to contain the pandemic. That Cuomo is a fellow New Yorker, and viewed as a rival for the nation’s attention, has clearly gotten under Trump’s skin.
“We are working very, very hard for the people of New York,” Trump said after Cuomo’s blunt remarks about the ventilators. “We are working a lot with him. Then I watch him on this show complaining.”
It’s not only a Democratic phenomenon. Republican governors, such as Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, Mike DeWine in Ohio and Larry Hogan in Maryland, have also stepped up, according to Stateline.org, a project of the Pew Center on the States.
“I do think that the governors moved out more efficiently than the federal government did, particularly the president and the administration,” Bob Griffin, dean of the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at the State University of New York Albany told Stateline. “Particularly Illinois and New York, and (California Gov. Gavin) Newsom did a decent job in California. Look at what you see even from Alabama, Washington – the states have taken the lead.”
So if Trump does carry through with his ill-considered decision to reopen the nation on Easter, expecting the resurrection of the country’s economic fortunes, don’t be surprised to see Wolf, Cuomo and other governors trying to roll the rock back into place as they seek to protect their own residents.
John L. Micek is editor-in-chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.