The United States of America faces two critical emergencies. One is the coronavirus pandemic. The other is the presidency of Donald Trump.
The latter assertion isn't just linked to the Trump administration's well-documented mishandling of the pandemic response. Indeed, Trump is not the first president to be caught short by an unexpected crisis. But other presidents — FDR after Pearl Harbor, George W. Bush after 9/11, Barack Obama after the economy collapsed in 2008 — brought their focus to bear on meeting the great challenges before them. But as anybody who watched Trump's latest bonkers news briefing on Monday can attest, beating back a virus that threatens public health is a priority for Trump only to the extent that it helps him assert his power and preserve his own image.
Trump used the briefing to show a campaign-style video defending his management of the pandemic, featuring glowing quotes from governors. "Everything we did was right," he told reporters. That isn't true: Reports have shown that Trump was slow to take action on the virus, diverting early discussions to talk of vaping and accusing advisers of being alarmist when they warned the virus might require the shutdowns we're now seeing. The president's overwhelming need to brag and burnish his reputation is unseemly at the best of times. That he insists on prioritizing it when thousands of Americans are dying of COVID-19 speaks to his rare moral and spiritual bankruptcy. We now have a definitive answer to an old question: Does character matter in a president? Yes, it does, and Trump lacks it completely.
But the most troubling part of the president's Monday performance came when Trump said he might order state governors to ease shelter-at-home rules and begin to re-open their economies. Trump is likely pushing for this because he fears facing re-election while the economy is in tatters thanks to widespread lockdowns. But experts fear that lifting the lockdowns too quickly could lead to a new wave of coronavirus illnesses and deaths.
Asked what authority he had to command states re-open, Trump responded: "When someone is president of the United States, the authority is total. And that's the way it's gotta be."
That is breathtakingly wrong. The Constitution plainly divvies up federal authority between the three branches of government, and the 10th Amendment explicitly delegates power to the states. The system is set up so that no person or branch has "total authority." It is the most basic lesson taught in our civics classes, but Trump has long demonstrated a convenient ignorance of the Constitution's details and limits on his presidential power.
Trump's performance should finally kill any notion that the Republican Party and its Tea Party base are motivated by a deep fidelity to the Constitution or "limited government." If former President Obama had asserted "total authority" at any point in his presidency, conservative protesters would have taken to the streets within hours, cheered on by Fox News and GOP leaders. Now, the president's autocratic assertions are received with silence and assent. The hypocrisy would be stunning if it weren't so predictable.
Trump's claim of unlimited authority would be more frightening if he hadn't frequently evaded actually using such authority during this crisis, preferring instead to scapegoat the nation's governors under the guise of federalism. Most notably, he has refused to issue a national stay-at-home order, leaving that decision up to individual states. "We have a thing called the Constitution, which I cherish, number one," he said earlier this month. "Number two, those governors — I know every one of them — they're doing a great job. They're being very, very successful in what they're doing. And as you know, I want the governors to be running things." To the extent he has used his authority, it has been to pursue old bugaboos like closing down the nation's borders, or to engage in corruption like using ventilators as a form of patronage to favored Republican politicians.
In the absence of federal leadership, the nation's governors are devising their own workarounds. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) announced Monday his state is forming a pact with Washington and Oregon to plan how to re-open their economies; New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Delaware are undertaking a similar initiative.
In short: The federal government under President Trump is broken, unwilling or unable to perform the tasks expected of it during a national emergency. The president wants all the power, all the credit, and none of the responsibility. The result is a terrifying mix of authoritarianism and fecklessness that threatens American democracy and public health.
There seem to be no remedies for Trump's behavior, at least until the November election. Voters should remember not just that he mismanaged this deadly pandemic, but that his own behavior constituted a crisis in its own right.
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