The coronavirus’s continued spread throughout the U.S. has not stopped President Donald Trump’s desire to get back to normal already, as the president has emphasized in recent days the importance of immediately reopening the economy. “We’re starting a very very powerful, important process,” Trump said at his press briefing Tuesday about reopening states. “You see that people are getting very anxious, they want to get going, they want to get back to their jobs … the light is getting brighter and brighter every day.” Trump’s push to reopen the country ASAP as coronavirus cases remain high—and without increased testing—has faced widespread opposition, however, with public health experts, many governors, and the majority of the American public wary of restarting daily life too soon and spurring a new wave of infections. But Trump’s premature move to get things going again does have one unsurprising supporter: U.S. Attorney General William Barr.
Barr, who has often been criticized for his sycophantic support of the president’s agenda, praised Trump’s approach to reopening the U.S. Tuesday, telling conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that the president had issued “superb and common-sensical” guidance to the states. “I think the President’s plan for getting the country back to work is really a very common-sensical approach that is based on really assessing the status of the virus in each state and each locality, and then gradually pulling back on restrictions,” Barr told Hewitt in an interview. While the attorney general said that the government was justified in using “temporary and reasonable restrictions on rights if really necessary to meet the danger,” Barr defended starting to lift some restrictions as soon as possible, likening continued stay-at-home orders to governors putting their constituents under “house arrest.” “These are unprecedented burdens on civil liberties right now. You know, the idea that you have to stay in your house is disturbingly close to house arrest,” Barr told Hewitt. “I’m not saying it wasn’t justified. I’m not saying in some places it might still be justified. But it’s very onerous, as is shutting down your livelihood.” These “very, very burdensome impingements on liberty” were only adopted “for the limited purpose of slowing down the spread, that is bending the curve,” Barr added. “We didn’t adopt them as the comprehensive way of dealing with this disease.” (It should be noted that stay-at-home orders in the U.S., which are largely based around closing non-essential businesses, are still far less restrictive and carry lighter penalties than those of many other countries.)
Echoing Trump and other conservatives’ view that the coronavirus “cure cannot be worse than the problem itself”—though the current economic issues are intrinsically intertwined with the public health crisis—Barr likened the coronavirus restrictions to “chemotherapy” when “cancer is spreading.” “The question is you can’t just keep on feeding the patient chemotherapy and say well, we’re killing the cancer, because we were getting to the point where we’re killing the patient,” Barr said. The attorney general’s belief that restrictive stay-at-home policies aren’t worth the potential public health benefit could even inspire him to take legal action, as Barr warned Tuesday that “we’ll have to address” governors who don’t follow Trump’s reopening guidance “and impinge on either civil rights or on the national commerce, our common market.” When Hewitt brought up the possibility of citizens suing their states over stay-at-home restrictions, Barr said that the Justice Department “would take a position” on lawsuits if “justified.” “We’re looking carefully at a number of these rules that are being put into place. And if we think one goes too far, we initially try to jawbone the governors into rolling them back or adjusting them,” Barr said. “And if they’re not and people bring lawsuits, we file statement of interest and side with the plaintiffs.”
Barr’s suggestion that the DOJ could side with anti-social distancing constituents over a state government comes as the president and others on the right have openly expressed their support for the vocal minority of protesters fighting against social distancing policies. (“These are people expressing their views,” Trump said Friday, after he tweeted in support of “liberat[ing]” states.) But the opinion that social distancing needs to end ASAP, despite Trump and Barr’s rhetoric, isn’t one that most Americans agree with. Multiple polls have shown a majority of Americans are practicing social distancing and are wary of getting back to normalcy too soon, including an Axios/Ipsos poll released Tuesday that showed 72% of respondents (including 62% of Republicans) are of the opinion that “returning to my normal pre-coronavirus life right now is a moderate/large risk.” While Barr stressed the need for “targeted approaches” to live with the coronavirus instead of blanket stay-at-home orders, some of the key approaches that have been singled out by experts to enable some return to normalcy—particularly widespread testing—have been downplayed or bungled by the Trump administration, and are barely mentioned in the administration’s reopening guidelines.