The Memo: Trump's claim of 'total' authority fails to fly with nation's governors

The Memo: Trump's claim of 'total' authority fails to fly with nation's governors
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President TrumpDonald TrumpCheney says a lot of GOP lawmakers have privately encouraged her fight against Trump Republicans criticizing Afghan refugees face risks DeVos says 'principles have been overtaken by personalities' in GOP MORE’s extraordinary clash with the nation’s governors picked up speed for most of Tuesday, as he tweeted comparisons with a movie mutiny and portrayed New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Arizona recount to show Trump's loss by even wider margin Former co-worker accuses Chris Cuomo of sexual harassment in NYT essay NY health chief criticized over state's COVID-19 response resigns MORE (D) as ungrateful after “begging” for his help.

State leaders jabbed back, with Cuomo telling CBS’s “This Morning” that “we don’t have a king. We have a president.”

Experts are in virtually unanimous agreement that Trump has no real legal basis for the view that he expressed at Monday’s White House press briefing: that he has “the ultimate authority” and “total” power over the nation.


Late Tuesday, even the president seemed to move away from such absolutist claims, saying that he would speak to every governor and that he would "then be authorizing each individual governor of each individual state to implement a reopening."

Trump made the original claims in the context of stay-at-home orders that have been issued by governors in the vast majority of the nation’s states in response to the coronavirus crisis.

Those orders, along with broad public fear, have reduced economic activity to a feeble echo of its usual vigor.

Trump is eager to get the nation back to some kind of normalcy as soon as possible, in the hope that doing so would ameliorate the worst economic effects of the crisis — and, in the process, boost his reelection prospects in November.

But groups of predominantly Democratic governors — one group in the Northeast and one on the West Coast — have banded together to coordinate their response to the crisis. In the process, they have sparked a power struggle with Trump, who appeared furious at what he seemed to see as a usurpation.

But experts are adamant that he simply does not have the power to countermand governors’ stay-at-home orders.


“There is no doubt at all that he doesn’t have the power to do this,” said Claire Finkelstein, a professor and faculty director of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania.

Finkelstein explained: “The governors issued the stay-at-home orders, so only the governors can remove those orders. These orders are not President Trump’s, nor could they be. The governors have authority over the health, welfare and safety of the citizens of their respective states.”

But the clarity of the law, as experts like Finkelstein see it, does not necessarily stop the president from taking action as part of a political strategy — even if his efforts might have a very limited chance of prevailing in the courts.

If he chose to resume a confrontational strategy he could, for example, issue an executive order proclaiming stay-at-home orders had been lifted by him. Most experts believe that governors would issue an immediate legal challenge to such an order and would ultimately prevail.

But, in the bigger political picture, Trump would have put down a marker, positioning himself as a leader eager to get the nation back to normal — and one who is being frustrated by more cautious voices at the state and local level.

For now, however, there is no mistaking the growing enmity between Trump and Democratic governors, in particular.

Earlier on Tuesday, the president tweeted a comparison to a 1960s movie starring Marlon Brando, in which sailors mutiny against a sadistic captain.

“Tell the Democrat Governors that ‘Mutiny On The Bounty’ was one of my all time favorite movies.” Trump tweeted. “A good old fashioned mutiny every now and then is an exciting and invigorating thing to watch, especially when the mutineers need so much from the Captain. Too easy!”

The reference to himself as a “captain” whose assistance is needed seemed a thinly veiled threat to withhold aid to states whose chief executives displease him.

Roughly an hour previously, Trump again tangled with Cuomo, who has been the leading face of the Empire State’s battle against the coronavirus, and who has received considerable attention for his own near-daily briefings on the crisis.

Trump asserted that Cuomo had been “calling daily, even hourly, begging for everything” and added, “I got it all done for him, and everyone else, and now he seems to want Independence! That won’t happen!”

Cuomo did back off his earlier confrontational tone later in the day, when he said at his news conference, “I am not going to fight with him.”

“The president, being a somewhat insecure figure, has had his fill of seeing the governors get all the credit for doing everything and he wants to get some of the credit himself,” said George Arzt, a veteran New York strategist who once served as press secretary for former New York City Mayor Ed Koch (D).

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, agreed with the consensus that Trump cannot legally force states to reopen. But he also noted that the president has other important points of influence.

“He does have emergency power, and that can be interpreted pretty broadly — although if he attempted to micromanage what was happening in different state economies, I suspect that would be challenged,” Zelizer said.

More pertinently, “He has the money that federal agencies give and that is something that governors need right now. Gov. Cuomo, for example, can’t afford to alienate the president,” Zelizer added.

More generally, Trump’s stance has been criticized outside the confines of liberal circles.

The conservative National Review on Tuesday complained in an editorial about Trump’s “ugly, caudillo-esque rhetoric.”


On Fox News, anchor Bret Baier said that if former President Obama had made the claim of “total” authority, “conservatives’ heads would’ve exploded across the board.”

For now, it seems clear that Trump's original claim just won’t fly.


The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.