As leaders of Congress hammered out the US$2 trillion ($3.4t) stimulus package this week, United States President Donald Trump spent much of his time posting commentary on Twitter, parrying questions in the White House press briefing room and filling airtime on Fox News Channel.

It has been governors and local leaders, not the President, who have been making many of the decisions upending people's lives in an urgent effort to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus - from closing schools and houses of worship to shutting down restaurants and bars to ordering families to stay at home.

Trump, who campaigned for the presidency by casting himself as a great deal-maker and who prides himself on being the ultimate decider, has sought to leave the impression through his daily public appearances of being in total control of America's response to the pandemic.

In reality, the President has been playing a secondary role in some key areas.

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Although he has taken unilateral action in some cases - such as suspending travel first from China and more recently from Europe, and deploying military ships and other federal assets to coronavirus hot spots - he has played a back-seat role elsewhere that belies his omnipresence in the national media.


And while the Administration has directed federal resources to New York, now the outbreak's epicentre in the US, Trump sought today to hold that state's Governor, Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, responsible for the lack of ventilators and other medical equipment in short supply.

In Rhode Island, a small state where the number of coronavirus cases has climbed rapidly and surpassed 120 today, Governor Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, said nearly all of the response actions have been driven at the local level.

"The President made it very clear in his call with the governors last week that he wanted us to be on the front line, accessing the private market for supplies, and really making it clear that we were in charge in each of our states, so that's what we're doing," Raimondo said in an interview. "Governors are leading. It's what we always do. We have to get things done."


The economic rescue plans have been determined largely by members of the House and Senate, who control the nation's purse strings, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other Administration officials helping negotiate terms on the President's behalf.

Apart from tweeting his views, it is unclear what role if any Trump has personally played in those negotiations. A White House official said Trump has received regular updates from Mnuchin and others, and has spoken multiple times a day with some members of Congress.

Despite Trump's declaration that he wants the "country opened" by Easter in mid-April 12, the President has limited powers to do so. He and his coronavirus task force can release federal guidelines, but so far it has been states and localities that have determined their own restrictions based in part on the spread within their communities.


Many Trump Administration officials have described the coronavirus response as locally-executed, state-managed and federally-supported, and argue that it is not appropriate for the federal Government to dictate policies to states. In addition, they credit the President with regular updates for state and local officials and with marshaling the private sector.

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"It is because of President Trump's leadership that he has brought together government and private industry for an unprecedented collaboration to curb the spread of the virus, expand testing capacities, and expedite vaccine development," White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement.

"He's also working with Congress to ensure that we take care of all Americans, including affected industries and small businesses," Deere continued. "And this president has taken an unmatched approach to communicating and working with our nation's governors and local officials to guarantee they have the resources they need and the ability to make the best on-the-ground decisions for their communities."


Still, governors across the country have said they would make their own decisions about social distancing and other mitigation measures for their states based on the data and the recommendations of public health experts, irrespective of Trump's stated desire to soon scale back restrictions.

"We're just trying to take the best advice we can from the scientists and all the experts and making the decisions we believe are necessary for our states," Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, said today on CNN, noting Trump's comments.

"We don't think we are going to be in any way out of this in five or six days or so or whenever this 15 days is up, from the time they started this imaginary clock."

In Rhode Island, Raimondo said that although she shares Trump's goal of jump-starting the economy as quickly as is safely possible, she would make her own choice only after testing as many people as possible to pinpoint and quarantine the infected.


"Every governor I think has to make the decision individually as to what's right for our state," Raimondo said. "This concept that it's a binary on-off switch I don't think is the right way to think about it . . . My vision is you'd reopen it in an incremental fashion with new guidelines, industry by industry, in a thoughtful way."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D, was more blunt. Asked by CNN's Dana Bash about Trump's statements about reopening the economy, Pelosi said, "I don't have time to follow people's tweets, Twitters, whatever."

"He's notion-mongering as he does almost every day," Pelosi added. "So rather than waste any time commenting on the President, I would rather spend our time focusing on the fact that any president or anybody with responsibility should be scientifically-inclined, evidence-based, data, what is going to make the difference."

Trump has called himself a "war-time president." Were this a traditional war, the President would have awesome authority to deploy the military and engage the enemy. But a pandemic is different, and the power to respond in some cases lies elsewhere.


"We talk about a president having war powers, but it's really meant to be put in a military context," historian Douglas Brinkley said. "There's a big difference between if we had a nuclear attack on the US when the president would make definitive orders with the US. military and something like the coronavirus, a health crisis, the power really rests in Congress and the states."

In one area where Trump does have power to act he has chosen not to exercise his authority. Trump signed the Defence Production Act, a wartime provision that allows the federal government to force private manufacturers to produce needed materials, but he has not yet enforced it. Trump has said he does not need to because some companies are voluntarily stepping up to make masks, gowns, ventilators and other equipment in short supply.

Democrats have excoriated Trump for not enforcing the act to more aggressively compel companies to produce these supplies.

"What is he waiting for?" former Vice-President Joe Biden said on CNN. "He says he's a wartime president. Well, God, act like one. Move, fast."


Trump biographer Michael D'Antonio suggested that the President may be trying to avoid responsibility for any shortcomings in the coronavirus response - a pattern in Trump's life wherein as the stakes rise and the peril increases, he seeks to distance himself from accountability.

"He has in the past distributed blame when things go wrong and seized all the credit when things go right," D'Antonio said.

"This goes to the tension between power and responsibility . . . I would imagine he now recognises this is a natural disaster which no amount of talk can defeat, so that forces people to consider the actions that leaders take, and he would vastly prefer that governors make these decisions so that he can avoid responsibility."


This approach was evident today, when Cuomo pleaded at a televised news conference for the Trump Administration to distribute to New York many more of the roughly 20,000 ventilators in the national stockpile and lambasted the Administration for not already doing so.

Shortly thereafter, Trump appeared on Fox News Channel and sought to shift blame to Cuomo.

"We're building them hospitals, we're building them medical centres and he was complaining," Trump said.

He added: "I'm not blaming him or anything else but he shouldn't be talking about us. He's supposed to be buying his own ventilators."