On The Trail: Governors rebuke Trump for claiming ‘total’ authority
A looming showdown between President Trump’s eagerness to revive a cratering economy and governors facing a deadly pandemic is leading to what could become the most contentious standoff between state and federal governments since the civil rights era.
For almost 250 years, the competing interests of states and the U.S. government have undergirded the most divisive debates in American history.
Now, as governors and the Trump administration grapple with the combined threats of a fast-moving outbreak that has already claimed tens of thousands of American lives and an economic catastrophe that has cost tens of millions of jobs, state leaders are increasingly at odds with President Trump over how to move through a rapidly evolving crisis.
“In the history of federalism and the relationship between the national and state governments, this is bordering on a pretty epic approach,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in North Carolina. “The battle over who has the authority to do what in this crisis really is playing out in such a stark way.”
Trump, who initially did not take the threat of a pandemic as seriously as other world leaders, has been happy to delegate responsibility to the states and eager to avoid blame for his administration’s early missteps that left the nation blind to the health crisis it faced.
“They’re being very, very successful in what they’re doing. And as you know, I want the governors to be running things,” Trump said at a White House briefing April 4.
Governors who saw the virus coming took the steps that Trump was unwilling to advise, at considerable political risk, even without the Trump administration or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urging action.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) became the face of the growing response as the virus hit his state first. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) was the first in the nation to order a statewide lockdown, knowing full well the economic damage it would cause.
By now, almost every state has some manner of stay-at-home order or advisory in effect, orders that were unthinkable just a month ago. For the first time in American history, every state is under a declared state of emergency.
“I like to allow governors to make decisions without overruling them, because from a constitutional standpoint, that’s the way it should be done,” Trump said on April 10.
But as Americans enter their second month of enforced or strongly encouraged social distancing, Trump’s patience is wearing thin. Though more than a thousand Americans have died from the disease every day in April, Trump is increasingly interested in reopening the economy, desperate to avoid plunging into a new depression that international economic forecasters already see as a certainty.
The White House is expected to roll out a working group tasked with putting together a plan for reopening the economy. Among its members are Cabinet-level officials, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow and the acting head of the Office of Management and Budget, Russell Vought. The task force is not expected to include any public health experts.
Trump said Monday he expected governors to follow his administration’s recommendations — and that if they didn’t, he had the authority to force them to do so.
“We will soon finalize new and very important guidelines to give governors the information they need to start safely opening their states. My administration’s plan and corresponding guidelines will give the American people the confidence they need to begin returning to normal life. That’s what we want. We want to have our country open. We want to return to normal life,” Trump said. “Our country is going to be open, and it’s going to be successfully opened.”
Asked later about presidential powers, Trump added: “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be. … It’s total. It’s total. And the governors know that.”
Had it come from former President Obama, that answer alone might have spurred Republican calls for impeachment. But as other presidents — including Obama — have learned in the past, Trump’s powers are hardly limitless when it comes to the states.
“The federal-state relationship is central to our democracy. This has been a topic discussed since our Founding Fathers first decided to embark on this entire venture, right? This is basic federalism, the role of the states and the role of the federal government,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said Tuesday. “We don’t have a king in this country. We didn’t want a king, so we have a Constitution and we elect a president. The states, the colonies, formed the federal government. The federal government did not form the states.”
Indeed, just hours after Trump’s comments, groups of governors on the West Coast and in the Northeast said they would form coalitions to consider when to reopen their states, a stunning rebuke of the president.
Newsom, Inslee and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) said they would coordinate plans to reopen businesses when health data showed it was safe to do so.
The governors of New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Massachusetts — whose governor is a Republican — also said they would create joint recommendations in a blueprint to revive the economy.
Trump is picking a fight he almost certainly cannot win. Virtually no constitutional experts believe the president has the power to supersede the orders any governor puts in place in his or her home state. Instead, many pointed to the 10th Amendment, which reserves for the states the powers that are not explicitly delegated to the federal government.
“We put the executive orders in place. We’re the ones who are responsible for the safety and health of the people of our states,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) told NPR on Tuesday morning.
But Trump’s efforts to force states to reopen may be less about actually achieving the goal than it is about shifting blame to governors for an economic catastrophe that hits just months before voters decide whether Trump deserves a second term.
The most contentious moments in American history are often stoked by challenges to the balance of power between state and federal governments. Bitzer compared the current clash to controversies surrounding President Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism and President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments after the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act a century later.
But in America’s modern politics, where Republican fealty to and Democratic loathing of Trump has so reshuffled normal dynamics, Bitzer pointed to yet another ironic shift.
“What’s interesting is that one political party has prided itself on being the party that espouses the notion that state governments should have more authority and governing power than the national government, while the other party espouses the notion that ‘the rights of the states’ should be subservient to the power of the national government,” he said.
Those roles, like so many others, have been reversed.
On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.