WASHINGTON — As New York leaders continue to appeal to the federal government for more aid in the fight against COVID-19, President Donald Trump has recently delivered directives or publicly weighed possible restrictions that have blind sided state officials and sowed confusion.
Trump backpedaled on a tristate quarantine order he floated on Twitter without consulting with state officials. He had called on people traveling outside of the New York City metro-area to self-quarantine for 15 days, a directive the state's health commissioner later advised New Yorkers against following.
The president has also implied that New York health care workers were hoarding or stealing medical masks and accused state officials of mismanaging stockpiled ventilators, prompting Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to note that the ventilators were being kept in a warehouse to prepare them for the surge of cases to come.
Communications strategists have raised questions about Trump’s freewheeling approach at a time when the public is turning to the federal government for guidance. But the president’s allies contend Trump is airing his thoughts for public feedback as he always has.
Trump last weekend raised the idea of quarantining the tristate area, before backtracking hours later following pushback from the governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Cuomo told reporters Trump never brought up the prospect of a quarantine when both spoke hours before the president told reporters he was weighing the idea. The governor compared the prospect of a federally imposed quarantine to a “declaration of war.”
“I don’t even know what that means,” Cuomo said when first asked about Trump’s proposed quarantine.
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, speaking at a news conference hours after Trump tweeted about the possibility of a quarantine said: “Words matter. And those words have created a certain amount of confusion. And when you lack clarity, that can create confusion. And confusion can lead to panic.”
Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, who served under President George W. Bush, called the confusion over the quarantine “an unnecessary error by the President.”
“In a crisis, presidents need not publicly air every thought they have. Steadiness, determination and confidence are more helpful,” Fleischer wrote on Twitter.
GOP communications strategist Alex Conant, who served as communications director for Marco Rubio’s failed 2016 presidential campaign, wrote on Twitter: “Honest question: Why would Trump float a tristate quarantine, cause panic [and] confusion in those states, and then announce he’s not doing it? In the face of the biggest national crisis in decades, what is the strategy in that?”
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), a Trump ally in Congress, said that when it comes to Trump, “you have to judge by the result. Not by how he says something, or what he says.”
“The president thinks aloud,” King said. “There’s no unspoken thought that President Trump has … there’s no filter there.”
King said Trump’s publicly floating the prospect of a quarantine “could have been his way of sending a signal not to travel in and out of New York.”
At the March 24 White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing, Dr. Deborah Birx, the group’s response coordinator, called on those leaving the New York City metro area to self-quarantine for 15 days, an announcement the president acknowledged at the end of the briefing was made without consulting Cuomo.
A day later, asked about the federal government’s order, state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker questioned its effectiveness of in containing the spread of the virus, saying “these cases are all over the country. It’s not just New York.”
“I would not follow that,” Zucker said about the order. “I believe that you should follow the guidelines in general that you should social distance.”
Trump and Cuomo have also tangled over some of Trump’s recent claims that state officials have not properly deployed stockpiled ventilators to hospitals, and the president's suggestion without evidence that hospital workers are taking much needed face masks “out the back door.”
Cuomo said Trump was "grossly uninformed," about the ventilators, saying the lifesaving equipment was stored in a New Jersey warehouse in preparation for the surge of increased cases. Asked about Trump’s comments suggesting workers were stealing masks, Cuomo told reporters: “If he wants to make an accusation, then let him make an accusation, but I don't know what he's trying to say by inference.”
Jennifer R. Mercieca, a professor of communications at Texas A&M University who focuses on the history of American presidential rhetoric, said in times of crisis presidents have always sought to project “that they are in control of the situation” and would typically vet policy announcements to avoid the confusion that has surrounded some of Trump's recent announcements.
“They want to convey both uncertainty, because you don’t know exactly how things are going to turn out … but also that there are steps that we are taking as a government,” Mercieca said of Trump's predecessors. “Even if things behind the scenes are not calm and steadfast, Americans have come to expect someone who can project that strength and clarity.”