“The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now, for this weekend,” the president said. “If they don’t do it, I will override the governors.”
Commanding places of worship across the country to open is not something Trump can do. When to open public venues of all types is up to the governor of each individual state. And much like when Trump announced last month he was going to force governors to open their states, when it comes to reopening places of worship, he jumped over what’s constitutionally allowed and arguably medically advisable, in an apparent effort to move the country in a direction he thinks is better for his reelection.
As Trump pushes to reopen the economy as quickly as possible, it was perhaps inevitable he was going to try to pressure governors to open places of worship.
Trump has never seemed willing to risk adopting policies that could rub evangelical voters the wrong way. The Washington Post reports that the White House shelved Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations on how to reopen places of worship over concerns they would come across as too restrictive. The CDC recently released low-key guidelines for societal reopening that conspicuously did not mention houses of worship.
In recent weeks, Trump has also bought into the notion that opening the economy is better than keeping it closed. He’s acknowledged a grim trade-off, of more sickness in exchange for more commerce. And he’s decided that that is a politically smart move, report The Post’s Michael Scherer and Ashley Parker. “Democrats are positioning themselves as the party of gradual caution and health concern, while Trump claims the space of bold action and economic bullishness,” they write.
Combine those two sentiments, and you get Friday’s announcement, given to seem as if Trump is forcing governors to open their places of worship with few restrictions. He left the room without taking any questions.
The chair of the White House coronavirus task force, Deborah Birx, came to the podium next and gently suggested it might not be best for places of worship in coronavirus hot spots to open up right now, and they should work closely with their local health departments to decide what to do.
Next it was up to White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany to explain how Trump could force places of worship to open. Facing pushback from reporters, she dialed down the message.
Instead of opening right now as Trump urged governors to do, McEnany said it will be up to the governors to decide when to reopen.
Instead of trying to argue the president has the authority to override governors, she called that scenario a “hypothetical question” (even though it was one Trump himself posed by mentioning it).
She also wouldn’t deny that Trump wants some places of worship to reopen in defiance of governors.
She pointed instead to CDC guidelines outlining best practices for how to open places of worship, which had just posted online as the briefing happened, saying Trump expects states to follow those guidelines. (He did not indicate as much in his short statement.)
Trump has spent weeks setting up governors to do the heavy lifting of deciding when to reopen and setting them up to take the blame if things go wrong. On Friday, he leaned heavily into the sentiment expressed by protesters of stay-at-home orders, that the government is blocking their freedoms. McEnany mentioned several times that freedom of religion is a First Amendment right.
Like Trump’s larger effort to push to reopen the economy, it’s a battle he’s waging that could backfire on him politically. What if places of worship reopen and infections flare as a result? The president made it very clear Friday he wants places of worship to reopen ASAP. But he seems more focused on seeming like a champion of religious freedom in the face of a pandemic than a shield against the health concerns it raises.