President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence repeatedly told Georgia Governor Brian Kemp they approved of his aggressive plan to allow businesses to reopen, a day before Trump pulled an about-face and publicly denounced it, two administration officials said.
The green light from Pence and Trump came in separate private conversations with the Republican governor both before Kemp announced his decision to ease coronavirus restrictions and after it was unveiled on Monday, the officials told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Trump’s sudden shift came only after top health advisers reviewed the plan more closely and persuaded the president that Kemp was risking the further spread of the virus by moving too quickly.
The extraordinary reversal – and public criticism of a Republican ally – is the latest in a series of contradictory and confusing messages from Trump on how and when he believes US governors should ease stay-at-home orders intended to stop the spread of the contagion.
Trump has been urging states to begin reopening for two weeks, suggesting certain portions of the country were now ready to resume aspects of normal life – against the recommendations of many of his own health experts.
Even though few states have met the benchmarks established by the White House, the president has cheered on efforts to “Liberate!” some states and has offered encouragement to the states that announced plans to open up.
Kemp was among the first Republican governors to take the cue. His order allows businesses such gyms, tattoo parlours, and bowling alleys to open on Friday under certain restrictions.
The president spoke to Kemp more than once about the plan, and both Trump and Pence called Kemp on Tuesday to praise his performance as governor and his plan to reopen, according to the two administration officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because were not authorised to publicly discuss the conversations.
But on Wednesday, members of the White House’s virus taskforce revisited the plan and felt it was too soon and would be difficult to defend in that afternoon’s press briefing.
Dr Deborah Birx, who helps lead the White House’s coronavirus response, then spoke to the president after the meeting and suggested it was too soon to reopen Georgia, an assertion with which the president agreed, according to the officials.
Trump then called Kemp and asked him to slow down his plan, which the governor refused to do, said the officials.
The governor suggested the two men continue to the discussion on another call, but they did not speak again before the briefing, in which Trump said he opposed some of the particulars of the plan to reopen.
Trump noted Kemp’s reopening violated the White House guidelines and suggested he would intervene if he saw “something totally egregious”.
On Thursday, he suggested he was particularly concerned by the idea that Kemp would reopen spas.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tweeted a denial that Trump had changed his position.
“No one ‘changed’ President Trump’s view. I was with him all throughout the day. His mind was made up. His priority has always been to reopen the country SAFELY,” she posted on Thursday.
Kemp said in a statement posted to Twitter that he discussed his plan to reopen businesses in a limited manner with Trump on Wednesday, but made no mention of Trump’s assertion that Georgia was moving too quickly.
Public health experts have expressed concern with Kemp’s plan and warned moving too quickly could fuel a resurgence in infections.
Confirmed cases of the virus in Georgia surpassed 21,000 on Thursday, and at least 870 deaths have been recorded, according to data from the state’s Department of Public Health.