Trump’s Guidelines Aren’t What He Says They Are

Trump’s rhetoric is quite different from what his “Opening Up America Again” plan actually says. The confusion he’s creating doesn’t help fight the virus or boost the economy. (Quite the opposite.) But it will allow him to claim credit for good outcomes while avoiding responsibility for bad ones.

Thursday, the White House released the long-awaited guidelines Opening Up America Again. It was rolled out in a quintessentially Trumpian way, one that will allow him to claim credit for any successes and blame someone else for any failures. This sleight-of-hand is achieved by a simple trick: What the document says is very different from what Trump says about it.

He says it’s a plan by which parts of the country can start relaxing stay-at-home orders almost immediately — even before his previously stated goal of May 1. But if you read the document (and how many MAGA-hatters will bother?) it lists a set of criteria not much different from those put forward by public-health experts all over the world — or by Joe Biden a week ago: a downward trend in cases, a rebuilt stockpile of medical equipment, extensive testing even of those with no symptoms, and exhaustive contact-tracing of those who test positive.

Since no state is anywhere near achieving those criteria, none can use these guidelines to justify opening up anytime in the near future.

You might expect all this open-up/stay-closed confusion to hinder both the economy and the fight against the virus — and you’d be right — but jobs and lives are not the point. The primary goal is to allow Trump to claim vindication no matter what happens.

  • If a state reopens its economy soon and everything works fine, then Trump takes credit for all the jobs gained, because he told them to reopen. Even better, he overruled both Democrats and scientists, who were wrong when he was right. The stable genius wins again!
  • If a state relaxes its lockdown rules, sees a spike in infections and deaths, and has to lock down again, it’s not Trump’s fault that the governor misapplied what was clearly written down in the guidelines. Blame that loser, even if he’s been a loyal Trumpist like Ron DeSantis or Greg Abbott.
  • If a state doesn’t reopen soon, then any economic or psychological distress caused by the continued lockdown is also the governor’s fault, and Trump is the champion of the suffering people trapped in their homes. Liberate Michigan!

It’s a neat trick. Let’s look a little deeper at how it works.

What he says. First off, here’s what Trump is saying:

I think 29 states are in that ballgame, not open enough for opening, but I think they’ll be able to open relatively soon.

Of course “not open enough for opening” is already a big enough loophole to excuse whatever happens. But when asked, he also wouldn’t name any of the 29 states. So no rigorous fact-checking is possible. If you point to, say, South Dakota, which appeared to be in good shape until a sudden explosion of cases this week, he can easily absolve himself with something like: “I didn’t say South Dakota.”

And when is “relatively soon”? Well, on a phone call to the governors, he said:

Some of you are in very, very good shape to open quickly and, if you’d like, according to the guidelines, you could open before the date of May 1.

Once again, though, he didn’t say who “some of you” are. So if any of you open up and it goes badly, you’re not the ones he meant.

And who’s standing in the way of people getting their jobs back, going to the church potluck dinner, or starting the baseball season? Why Democratic governors, of course. Organizations allied with Trump have sponsored anti-lockdown rallies (where some protesters openly carry rifles), and Trump has endorsed them, tweeting “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!“, “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!“, and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!“. [1]

In Lansing, gun-toting white male Trumpists raise the patriarchy’s battle cry against women in power: “Lock her up!”

So if you’re facing real hardship during this crisis — or if you’re just bored and resent that you can’t get your hair cut — Trump wants you to know that he’s on your side. If it were up to him, the economy would be booming again. People would be gathering in bars, flying coast-to-coast, and buying standing-room-only tickets for country music festivals. [2]

And the virus? Oh, never mind all that. Trump’s propaganda network is telling his base that the virus is no big deal — pulling false statistics out of their butts, and using the merely 60 thousand deaths predictions of the most optimistic if-we-lock-down models to argue that we don’t need to lock down. [3]

What the guidelines say. In contrast to what Trump himself implies, or the things said explicitly by his mouthpieces at Fox News, the administration’s guidelines take the virus seriously. They set criteria for opening that no state can currently meet, and which probably won’t be achievable for some while.

The guidelines have three phases. To enter Phase 1 (or to progress from one phase to the next), a state has to meet (and then maintain) these criteria:


Downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses (ILI) reported within a 14-day period


Downward trajectory of covid-like syndromic cases reported within a 14-day period


Downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period


Downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period (flat or increasing volume of tests)


Treat all patients without crisis care


Robust testing program in place for at-risk healthcare workers, including emerging antibody testing

In other words, the virus has to have been in retreat for two weeks, and you have to be prepared for the possibility that loosening restrictions will lead to a new outbreak. But that’s not all. The “Core State Preparedness Responsibilities” section assigns key responsibilities to the states. This is, in essence, a second set of criteria. If you can’t do these things — and no state currently can — you’ve got no business opening up.


  • Ability to quickly set up safe and efficient screening and testing sites for symptomatic individuals and trace contacts of COVID+ results
  • Ability to test Syndromic/ILI-indicated persons for COVID and trace contacts of COVID+ results
  • Ensure sentinel surveillance sites are screening for asymptomatic cases and contacts for COVID+ results are traced (sites operate at locations that serve older individuals, lower-income Americans, racial minorities, and Native Americans)


  • Ability to quickly and independently supply sufficient Personal Protective Equipment and critical medical equipment to handle dramatic surge in need
  • Ability to surge ICU capacity


  • Protect the health and safety of workers in critical industries
  • Protect the health and safety of those living and working in high-risk facilities (e.g., senior care facilities)
  • Protect employees and users of mass transit
  • Advise citizens regarding protocols for social distancing and face coverings
  • Monitor conditions and immediately take steps to limit and mitigate any rebounds or outbreaks by restarting a phase or returning to an earlier phase, depending on severity

In short, Opening Up America Again says exactly what nearly all the experts (and Biden) have been saying: We need to be doing lots more testing (about triple what we’re doing now, according to one Harvard report), including testing people without symptoms, so that we can figure out who has the virus and spot new outbreaks quickly. Healthcare workers and nursing home workers need antibody testing that is only just now becoming available, and may not be available in the needed quantities for some time. We need to be set up to do extensive contact-tracing, so that we track down everybody who might be infected (again, whether they have symptoms or not).

The healthcare system needs to have slack capacity and rebuilt stockpiles of protective equipment. Key systems like public transportation need to be reconfigured for safe use. Industrial plants (like the meat-packing plant that triggered the South Dakota outbreak) need to be reconfigured to protect workers.

The guidelines also say that public behavior can’t return to normal; you still need to keep away from people when you can and wear masks when you can’t. Keep washing your hands constantly, and self-quarantine if you feel sick.

Businesses that want to reopen need to keep limiting business travel, and shut down or regularly disinfect common areas where workers might otherwise congregate. The guidelines recommend temperature checks at the door for workers and perhaps customers as well.

Does any of that sound like the vision Trump has been putting forward in public? No, of course not. But if states loosen up their stay-at-home orders and something goes wrong, you can bet Trump will point to these Biden-like guidelines as what he really proposed, and completely forget all his contrary statements. “I never told you to do that,” he’ll say. And Fox News and right-wing talk radio will back him up: “None of us ever said to do that.”

And if that butt-covering action requires throwing some Republican governors under the bus — I’m looking at you, Ron DeSantis of Florida — Trump will be more than willing to do it. Whether in business or politics, backing Trump’s play has always been a risky strategy.

The phases. A state needs two weeks of good testing to start Phase 1, then two more weeks to get to Phase 2, then two more to get to Phase 3. So if nothing at all goes wrong, no state can get back to anything resembling normal for six weeks.

In Phase 1, lots of stuff stays closed: schools, day-care centers, camps, bars. Nursing homes and hospitals are locked down against visitors. Gyms, churches, and arenas can open only if “strict physical distancing protocols” are maintained. (Picture a stadium or theater with about 1/10th of the seats occupied and no concession stand.) Out-patient elective surgeries are OK, but not ones that require hospitalization. Businesses should still encourage telework, and redesign their on-site processes for social distancing. As for individuals, you shouldn’t socialize in groups of 10 or more, and keep your distance from people even then. Avoid non-essential travel. Vulnerable people should stay home, and if you live with vulnerable people you need to be able to isolate yourself from them.

In Phase 2, schools can reopen, the limit on social gatherings rises to 50, and you get to travel non-essentially again. Common areas at work should still be closed, and telework continued. Elective surgery with hospitalization is OK. You still can’t visit Mom at the nursing home. Bars can reopen “with diminished standing-room occupancy”, whatever that means. Social distancing protocols for large venues can now be “moderate” rather than “strict”. Vulnerable people should still stay home.

In Phase 3, vulnerable people can come out if they’re careful, and everybody else should minimize time in crowds when not avoiding them altogether. Workplaces can resume “unrestricted staffing”. Bars and gyms can go back to more-or-less normal, but large venues should still maintain “limited” social-distancing practices. You can visit Mom again, if you’re “diligent regarding hygiene” (which Mom always nagged you about anyway).

States are on their own. By listing those “Core State Preparedness Responsibilities”, the Trump administration is denying any responsibility for its failure to create the prerequisites for reopening. Testing, contact tracing, building up PPE stockpiles — those are state responsibilities. So the states shouldn’t count on the federal government to help them get ready to reopen.

But some governors made it clear they are not ready to break out the roadmap, saying they badly need help from Washington in expanding testing.

[New York Governor Andrew] Cuomo, whose state is the most lethal hot spot in the nation and is still seeing over 600 deaths a day, accused the federal government of “passing the buck without passing the bucks.”

“The federal government cannot wipe its hands of this and say, `Oh, the states are responsible for testing.′ We cannot do it. We cannot do it without federal help,” the governor said.

However, Trump will incite citizens to demand — perhaps violently — that their states reopen whether they are ready or not. [4]

Governors out on a limb. In spite of the fact that no state fulfills the prerequisites for Phase 1, several states are announcing some kind of reopening.

Despite Florida hitting a new high for new Covid-19 cases Friday, beaches in Jacksonville, Florida reopened for limited hours. (“This is really a crazy bad idea,” said one resident.) CNN did not see much social distancing. The NY Post reported: “Aerial photos show hundreds of people packing the sand to swim, stroll, surf and fish. Many were without masks.”

Texas Governor Greg Abbott appears to see the trap Trump has laid for him, and so far is doing the same thing Trump is doing: talking in favor of aggressive reopening, but not yet committing himself to anything specific.

Instead of kicking off a full restart, the Texas governor announced that a group of medical and economic experts will guide him through a series of incremental steps aimed at slowly reopening the state’s economy. The group’s aggressive name, the “Strike Force to Open Texas,” belies Abbott’s surprisingly cautious framework. Plans to restart business won’t come until April 27, and Abbott stressed they will be determined by “data and by doctors.”

But unlike Trump, Abbott has no one to pass the buck to. And his base, which belongs more to Trump than to him, is getting restless.

Through the week, as Abbott’s public messaging made it sound less likely that he would announce a grand reopening, he began taking fire from members of his own party who say he’s moved too slowly to reinvigorate the economy and has been overly deferential to public health experts. On Thursday for example, Don Huffines, a former Texas Republican state senator who represented Dallas County, wrote a blistering op-ed for the Austin American-Statesman, excoriated Abbott for his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Some Republican governors — Mike DeWine in Ohio for one — are standing by their lockdown decisions without waffling. And they are not immune to the Trump-inspired protests, as this Pulitzer-worthy photo from Columbus makes clear.

Attack of the MAGA zombies in Columbus. The woman on the left is a Republican candidate for the Ohio state senate.

But they also must know that Trump will shamelessly throw them under the bus if reopening leads to a new wave of deaths. He has already laid the groundwork to do just that.

[1] If any of this leads to actual violence, of course, that’s not Trump’s fault either. It never is.

Trump advisor Stephen Moore calls these protesters “modern-day Rosa Parks“, because staying home and watching Netflix for a month is exactly like living your whole life under Jim Crow.

And one more thing: None of these demonstrations around the country were more than a few hundred people. Would a similar number of liberals demonstrating for a liberal cause get this much attention? I doubt it.

[2] This vision, of course, is a complete fantasy. The economy can’t recover if we don’t beat the virus.

It’s worth noting that no one has locked down the airlines, but traffic has drastically dropped off anyway, because people very sensibly don’t want to spend hours trapped in a small space with possible carriers of the virus. Iowa has been one of the slower states to respond to the virus, and is not usually considered a hub of liberal hysteria, but The Des Moines Register reports:

Facing a 95% reduction in passenger traffic, Des Moines International Airport officials have closed a terminal, shut down services and delayed projects — including a planned Allegiant Air crew base — to save money during the coronavirus pandemic.

The unprecedented decrease in travelers while Iowans are practicing social distancing follows three years of record-breaking traffic at the state’s largest airport.

Bill Gates makes the point like this:

It’s very tough to say to people, “Hey, keep going to restaurants, go buy new houses, ignore that pile of bodies over in the corner. We want you to keep spending because there’s maybe a politician who thinks GDP growth is what really counts.”

And Thursday morning I heard CNBC’s Jim Cramer say:

You don’t want to think, “If I go to the movies, I might die.” We’ve got to take dying off the table.

[3] Bill Bennett and Seth Leibsohn write:

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Washington state is now projecting 68,841 potential deaths in America. It is also estimating lower ranges than that. The flu season of 2017-2018 took 61,099 American lives. For this we have scared the hell out of the American people, shut down the economy, ended over 17 million jobs, taken trillions of dollars out of the economy, closed places of worship, and massively disrupted civic life as we know it.

But National Review’s Rich Lowry (not usually one of my favorite writers) notes that the lockdown might have had something to do with keeping the death toll down to where it is, and then elaborates:

Consider the perversity of [Bennett and Leibsohn’s] reasoning a different way. If we had shut down the country a month sooner and there had been, say, only 2,000 deaths, then on their terms they’d have an even stronger argument, i.e., “We did all this, and there were only a couple of thousand fatalities?”

In other words, the more effective a lockdown would have been, the more opposed Bennett and Leibsohn would be to it.

[4] Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who is often likened to Trump, is taking one more step: He’s appearing at anti-lockdown demonstrations that openly call for a return to military rule.

Political observers say the protesters were right-wing Bolsonaro supporters who called for military intervention on behalf of the president because they view the country’s supreme court and legislature as obstacles to his campaign against pandemic lockdown measures, despite the fact that the country has more than 35,000 confirmed cases and over 2,300 deaths as of April 19.

“Now it is the people in power. It’s more than your right — it’s your obligation to fight for your country,” Bolsonaro said, standing on a pickup truck outside the Army headquarters. “We don’t want to negotiate anything. We want action for Brazil.”

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • SamuraiArtGuy  On April 20, 2020 at 11:07 am

    After the briefing (one of the few I watched) I had immediately downloaded the guidelines from NPR, since the talking head cams never showed the displays during the briefing. Aside from the contrast between the President and Drs Fauci and Bilx being stark, I doubt there is a state in the union that meets the under-mentioned “Gating” criteria. And Cannot, unless we collectively raise our constrained testing and virtually nonexistent tracing capabilities by a couple of orders of magnitude. Something we see little evidence of on the Federal side- at least down here in the trenches, where the infected and sick people are.

    Tactically, It’s all about shoving all the responsibility and blame down to the states and governors, an the present positioning himself to take credit for anything positive that happens. Frankly, it all seems to be about his re-election strategy, perceiving, perhaps correctly, that the economy is critical to his approval. So the haste to get everything up and humming by November so he can have his “mission accomplished” moment.

    I foresee chaos, dying Americans, and further fracturing of the Federal Republic. We are already seeing regional alliances of states to counter Federal inaction and even interference.

    But actually truing to handle the crisis in a humanitarian and responsible manner is not a consideration. And then there were the “Liberate ur statez” tweets. Isn’t “fomenting sedition” a federal crime? Right up there just under “treason?” No. Wait? But is it a crime when the President does it? Inquiring minds and all that.

  • ecjspokane  On April 21, 2020 at 12:19 am

    Trump’s activities are always dedicated to protecting and advancing him, purely and totally. To paraphrase: “Will no one rid us of this troublesome liar?”

    I’ve come to believe that we need to allow all those areas dominated by Trump’s rapid supporters and cultists to fully open immediately. Encourage them to gather in large crowds, shake hands, hug and kiss freely, cough and sneeze on each other freely. When they get sick, it can’t be COVID-19, since they believe that doesn’t exist. Since all medical facilities are reserved for COVID-19 patients, they should get no medical treatment. They should be prohibited from going to any areas that practice quarantine and distancing, of course.

    If a million or ten of them should die, the world would be that much better off and probably celebrate.

    I DO realize this is a not-nice attitude but I am sick and tired or people who are willingly refusing to observe, analyze, think for themselves and form their own opinions rather the parroting what conservative propaganda plants in their heads.

    I also know that moderate, thinking conservatives like Bill Buckley and David Brooks have some very necessary ideas that the far right has totally repudiated, like responsible federal spending and taxation to support that spending rather than unlimited borrowing like we have now.


    Eric Johnson Spokane WA

  • frankackerman0617  On April 21, 2020 at 5:17 pm

    Hi Doug, nice piece: non-pejorative references to facts and a clearly state opinion on one way to interrupt them. Also convincing, and a useful lodestone for assessing future covid statements from Trump.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: