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Did Donald Trump tell governors to close states during the pandemic? The answer is complicated
If Your Time is short
The Trump administration’s written guidelines to slow COVID-19’s spread early in the pandemic called for shutting down schools and for people to avoid going to restaurants except for takeout, and avoid discretionary travel and shopping.
Trump’s statements on Twitter and in press conferences were inconsistent about what he said to governors.
Sometimes, Trump deferred to governors; other times, he was more forceful about what he thought they should do about shutdowns or reopenings.
Former President Donald Trump has been attacking Gov. Ron DeSantis over the way he managed Florida’s COVID-19 pandemic response.
U.S. Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Fla., came to DeSantis’ defense.
"Trump's trying to rewrite the whole COVID narrative, calling Ron ‘Shutdown Ron,’" Moskowitz said March 26 on CNN’s State of the Union. "I mean, listen for anyone who was on the conference calls with the president, he instructed all the governors to shut down."
Moskowitz may have been on those calls when he worked for the state. He was Florida’s director of emergency management at the time. And before he won a 2022 race to represent left-leaning Broward County, DeSantis also appointed him to the Broward County Commission.
But we found that it’s not easy to boil Trump’s response during the pandemic’s early months to a sound bite.
We don’t have access to all the conference calls, but the Trump administration’s guidelines did encourage shutdowns in March 2020. However, Trump’s communications with governors were inconsistent. He sometimes encouraged governors to decide for themselves; other times, he falsely asserted that he had the final deciding authority.
We contacted Moskowitz’s office for comment and got no response.
Asked for comment about Moskowitz’s statement, Trump spokesperson Steve Cheung said, "Trump gave governors the ability to choose the best decision for their states. Some chose to shut down small businesses, beaches and other establishments in Florida, while others chose to keep their state open."
A beach entrance is cordoned off March 21, 2020, in Surfside, Fla. Miami-Dade County's mayor ordered all beaches, parks and "nonessential" commercial and retail businesses closed because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. (AP)
Although Moskowitz singled out conference calls between Trump and state officials, we looked more broadly at Trump’s statements, tweets and policies around state oversight, too.
On March 16, the Trump administration announced guidelines for "15 days to slow the spread." It said, "Governors of states with evidence of community transmission should close schools in affected and surrounding areas." Guidelines also called for people to work from home "whenever possible," avoid restaurants except for takeout, and avoid discretionary travel and shopping.
The administration later extended guidelines to 30 days, urging the public to "listen and follow all directions from your state and local authorities."
There are some published accounts of Trump’s teleconferences with governors, though we do not have transcripts for all of them.
In a March 16, 2020, teleconference, Trump told governors to find their own supplies, including ventilators. (The New York Times published leaked audio of a few minutes of that phone call.)
In another teleconference call three days later, Trump largely agreed with points shared by governors and didn’t give separate instructions. Consider what he told three Democratic governors:
Trump told Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer she was "right 100%" about her economic concerns.
Trump invited Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker to "call me up" if he had problems obtaining testing swabs.
Trump praised then-Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak for a "great idea" to help low-wage workers who faced unemployment because of the pandemic.
During a March 23, 2020, press briefing, when asked by a reporter about how parents could return to work if schools were closed, Trump said: "The governors of the various states will have a lot of leeway. If we open up, and when we open up, the governors in certain states … those schools are going to be open."
Trump said, "Certain governors are going to maybe have a decision to make. Now, they may make a decision to keep them open in a certain part of New York and maybe in Westchester County, or wherever it may be, they’ll keep them closed. But they’re going to have leeway. We’re giving the governors a lot of leeway."
In a March 26, 2020, teleconference, Trump told governors in states with lower confirmed COVID-19 cases, "We should put you on an early opening list," ABC News reported. "We can't keep everybody closed — this country closed — it’s ridiculous. A lot of these states have to get back to work."
President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus April 13, 2020, in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, D.C. (AP)
In April 2020, Trump made conflicting comments about who was in charge of reopening decisions.
During an April 10, 2020, press briefing, Trump said he had "a lot of faith in Ron DeSantis to make the right decision" about school reopenings.
"I’d have to look at the numbers, but again, I like to allow governors to make decisions without overruling them, because from a constitutional standpoint, that’s the way it should be done. If I disagreed, I would overrule a governor, and I have that right to do it."
But on April 13, 2020, as some governors discussed whether to reopen, Trump tweeted, "it is the decision of the President," not governors, to "open up the states."
In a press briefing that day, Trump said, "When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total and that’s the way it’s got to be."
Although Trump’s guidelines called for closures, it was the governors who issued more specific directives that closed schools and other places such as bars. Legal experts and political scientists told PolitiFact that governors had the authority to close or reopen facilities.
Days later, Trump pivoted again, suggesting reopenings decisions were up to governors.
"Governors will be empowered to tailor an approach that meets the diverse circumstances of their own states," Trump said April 16, 2020. "Every state is very different. They’re all beautiful. We love them all, but they’re very different. If they need to remain closed, we will allow them to do that. And if they believe it is time to reopen, we will provide them the freedom and guidance to accomplish that task and very quickly depending on what they want to do."
The Trump administration’s three-phased reopening guidelines in April 2020 called for reopening when a jurisdiction had a downward trajectory of COVID-19 cases and a robust testing system for health care workers.
As protests against social distancing restrictions emerged in mid-April 2020, Trump seemed to side with reopening. He tweeted, "LIBERATE MINNESOTA" and "LIBERATE MICHIGAN" — calling out two Democratic-led states with strict restrictions.
In late April 2020, Trump criticized Georgia’s plan to allow some business reopenings. "I think it’s too soon," Trump said.
ABC News reported that Trump told governors in an April 27, 2020, teleconference that they should "seriously consider" reopening their schools.
Health care workers wear personal protective equipment on May 6, 2020, as they stand in front of a mobile lab at a COVID-19 testing site at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP)
In a May 18, 2020, call with governors, Trump said governors were in charge of reopening.
"Our gradual reopening plans are moving along and they're moving along very rapidly," the president said, according to audio obtained by CBS. "The governors are making their decisions, and want to make their decisions, and that's the way I want it to, and we will step in if we see something going wrong, or if we disagree, and some people say that's nice, and some people say I shouldn't be doing that, but we're going to do it if we see something wrong."
In summer 2020, Trump encouraged states to reopen businesses, churches and schools. Florida was among the earlier-to-reopen states.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks July 14, 2020, during a roundtable discussion with Miami-Dade County mayors in Miami. (AP)
We interviewed two experts about Moskowitz’s statement.
"At best, Rep. Moskowitz’s statements are a significant exaggeration of actual events. At worst, these statements are simply untrue," said Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University.
Gostin said Trump was just implementing public health guidance; attempts to intervene in state public health management would have been challenged said.
Michael Fraser, chief executive officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, pointed out that the Trump White House’s criteria for reopening were often disregarded both by governors who opened up earlier than recommended, and by governors who stayed closed later than recommended.
"This was a confusing time, and public health decisions were being made quickly," Fraser said, "but in the federalist system governors would always make the call with advice/recommendation of federal authorities and in conjunction with the White House."
Moskowitz said Trump "instructed all the governors to shut down" due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The strongest evidence for his claim is the Trump administration’s "15 days to show the spread" plan in March that said governors "should close schools" in areas with community transmission. This document and subsequent recommendations for reopening from the administration were just that: recommendations.
We do not have a complete record of Trump’s phone calls with governors, but in some early calls that were leaked, he seemed to leave it to them to decide or fend for themselves.
Trump was more forceful about reopening in some of his public statements on Twitter or in press conferences. But these were often inconsistent messages. They were unenforceable, vague threats.
If his comments can be viewed as "instructions" then governors may have been hard-pressed to follow them because Trump would contradict himself, sometimes quickly. In April 2020, he falsely said he had total authority over reopenings, only to backtrack days later to defer to the governors.
The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context. We rate it Half True.
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CNN, State of the Union transcript and video clip, March 26, 2023
New York Times, Leaked audio of Trump teleconference call with governors, March 16, 2020
Fact Base, Remarks: Donald Trump Attends a Teleconference Briefing for Governors at FEMA, March 19, 2020
White House, Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force in Press Briefing, March 24, 2020
ABC News, Inside President Trump's call with governors: a mix of praise and criticism, March 26, 2020
Trump administration, 15 Days to slow the spread, March 2020
President Donald Trump, 30 Days to slow the spread, March 2020
PolitiFact, Are states in a bidding war over medical gear with the feds? April 1, 2020
Politico, Fauci: Kids could get ‘infected’ if Florida reopens schools, April 10, 2020
Rev.com, Donald Trump Coronavirus Task Force Press Conference Transcript, April 10, 2023
PolitiFact, Trump’s false claim that it’s up to him — not governors — to open states, April 13, 2020
Washington Post, Governors team up to decide when to lift coronavirus restrictions; Trump says he won’t fire Fauci, April 13, 2020
Rev.com, Donald Trump Coronavirus Press Conference Transcript April 13, 2020
Rev.com, Donald Trump Coronavirus Press Conference Transcript April 16: Guidelines to Reopen Parts of US in Phases, April 16, 2020
Trump twitter archive, "Liberate" tweets, April 17, 2020
Trump White House, Opening up America, April 2020
New York Times, Trump Criticizes Georgia Governor for Decision to Reopen State, April 22, 2020
ABC News, Coronavirus government response updates: Trump unveils plan to help states ramp up testing, April 27, 2020
CBS News, Trump tells governors on reopening: "We will step in if we see something going wrong, or if we disagree" May 19, 2020
Trump twitter archive, Search for the word "open," and about opening schools, 2020
Florida Department of Education, Order to reopen schools, July 6, 2020
My News 13, DeSantis taps Corcoran for Education Commissioner, Moskowitz for Emergency Mgt. Director, Dec. 6, 2018
Politico, DeSantis’ White House cover erodes as coronavirus spreads in Florida, July 22, 2020
Email interview, Jeremy Redfern, Gov. Ron DeSantis spokesperson, March 28, 2023
Email interview, Steven Cheung, Donald Trump campaign spokesperson, March 27, 2023
Email interview, Lawrence Gostin, a global health professor at Georgetown, March 28, 2023
Email interview, Michael Fraser, chief executive officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, March 28, 2023
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Did Donald Trump tell governors to close states during the pandemic? The answer is complicated
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