White House line on stay-at-home directions is a garbled mess

Over the last 48 hours, the Trump administration has presented the public with wildly divergent messages about a national stay-at-home order.
Image: Dr. Anthony Fauci at a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on March 24, 2020.
Dr. Anthony Fauci at a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on March 24, 2020.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

When it comes to stay-at-home orders, the White House has spent weeks telling state officials to make their own decisions. The Trump administration is clearly aware of critics who've argued that the president should announce a national directive, but so far, Team Trump has resisted.

That is, at least some of its members have. Surgeon General Jerome Adams appeared on NBC two days ago and pointed to the White House coronavirus guidelines recommending that Americans stay at home except for essential outings. "My advice to America would be that these guidelines are a national stay-at-home order," Adams told Savannah Guthrie.

That same afternoon, however, Donald Trump was asked why he hasn't issued a stay-at-home order for the whole country. "Because states are different," the president replied. "States are different.... There are some states that don't have much of a problem." By way of an example, the Republican pointed to Alaska as a state that "doesn't have a problem." (His choice of examples was unwise.)

Nevertheless, on Wednesday morning, the surgeon general said one thing, while the president said largely the opposite. And on Thursday morning, the NIH's Dr. Anthony Fauci talked to Savannah Guthrie and agreed with Adams.

Fauci also said he agreed with the U.S. surgeon general's assessment that the federal government's new recommendations that Americans stay home and restrict activity for 30 days "amount to a national stay-at-home order." "That's essentially what it is," Fauci said.

So to recap, according to the Trump administration, we have, don't have, and "essentially" have a national stay-at-home order. This was the message presented to the public over the course of about 24 hours.

Yesterday afternoon, the president muddled the picture a little more. In response to a question about Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), Trump told reporters, "He's a good governor and he has to make his own decision about that. I let the states -- I think we're about 85% positive on that. If you look, I think it's about 85% of the states have gotten the stay-at-home."

First, Trump was mistaken about the 85% figure. Second, it's within his power to create a national policy, but he still doesn't want to, notwithstanding the messages the public received from Adams and Fauci.

For his part, just a few hours after Trump exited the White House press briefing room, Fauci appeared on CNN and reiterated his support for a nationwide stay-at-home order. "I don't understand why that's not happening," he said, adding, "[T]he tension between federally mandated versus states' rights to do what they want is something I don't want to get into. But if you look at what is going on in this country, I do not understand why we are not doing that. We really should be."

If the pattern holds, Trump will push a competing line a little later today.