‘Try getting it yourselves’ — Trump’s coronavirus strategy
Beseeched by governors to use the power of the federal government to get and deliver Coronavirus tests kits, N95 masks, protective gloves and gowns, and ventilators to their states, President Trump declared, “Try getting it yourselves. We will be backing you, but try getting it yourselves. Point of sales, much better, much more direct if you can get it yourself.”
His response — and his approach to the greatest public health crisis in American history — reveals a willful ignorance of, contempt for, and determination to hide behind “federalism,” which along with the separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, is a foundational principle of our democracy.
Federalism was embedded in the U.S. Constitution in the 10th Amendment: “Powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people.”
This deceptively simple sentence, as Donald Kettl, a professor of public policy at the University of Texas, Austin, points out, requires “a treacherous balancing act” — deciding where the boundaries between the states and the federal government belong, and managing boundaries that are set.
President Trump’s application of federalism has been incoherent and inconsistent. His administration has denied that states have the right to legalize marijuana, for example, or that California has the authority to set automobile emissions standards. But when it suits his fancy, Trump claims that states are responsible for solving crises.
His willingness to invoke but reluctance to implement the Defense Production Act is a case in point. Adopted in 1950, during the Korean War, the legislation granted broad authority to the executive branch of the federal government to mandate that private companies manufacture products related to infrastructure and national security, and to requisition materials, ration consumer goods, and regulate consumer credit. President Truman used the Act to cap wages and impose price controls for a brief period. Since 1950, the Pentagon and FEMA have frequently used the Defense Production Act.
Although President Trump now calls COVID-19 a “war with an invisible enemy,” he remained adamantly opposed — despite doubts that volunteer efforts would address the shortfall of equipment — to ordering companies to make and deliver products to designated pandemic hot spots and emerging hot spots. The federal government, he insisted, without evidence, cannot determine which companies are capable of manufacturing the equipment. He compared the Defense Production Act, erroneously, to the nationalization of industries in Venezuela. And he has stated, in what even for him is a non-sequitur, “We are using it now. The fact that I signed it, it’s in effect.”
After maintaining for a week (an eternity in a pandemic) that it was unnecessary to use the Defense Production Act, Trump directed General Motors on March 27 to manufacture ventilators. These ventilators will not be available for at least a month.
The result: States and local governments, which have been playing catch up because the Trump administration failed to take preventive action in January and February, face the prospect and the reality of massive shortages of hospital beds, ICU units, medical personnel and equipment. Last week, FEMA shipped 400 ventilators to New York. Governor Cuomo believes the state needs 30,000 ventilators — now! Along with many governors, Republicans as well as Democrats, Cuomo refused to pat the agency on the back: “This is not the way to do it, this is ad hoc. I’m bidding up other states on the prices.”
President Trump has given himself a 10 out of 10 for his response to COVID-19. He has refused to “take any responsibility at all” for failures to prepare for the pandemic, playing his favorite game of whataboutism by castigating the Obama administration for not testing H1lN1 until it was “far too late”; characterizing as “nasty” a question about shutting down the Directorate for Global Health, Security and Biodefense and insisting, “And when you say me, I didn’t do it… it’s the administration. Perhaps they do that.”
At the same time, Trump has pledged that his administration “is prepared to do whatever it takes… to turn the corner and turn it quickly.”
As the virus has spread, with the United States reporting more cases than any other country, fatalities mounting, and public health professionals sounding the alarm, President Trump told Fox News, he was considering “opening up this incredible country” by Easter Sunday, so that churches could be packed and Americans could once again have “an incredible time.”
Amidst an avalanche of criticism, the president has now backed off a bit. But, ironically, if he does relax federal social distancing guidelines prematurely to juice the economy and the stock market, federalism may rescue him, as governors assert their authority under the Constitution, to keep urgently necessary, life-saving restrictions in place.
If and when the governors are successful and our country returns to some semblance of normality, you can also be sure that Donald Trump, our inspirational wartime leader who does not believe he should return phone calls from governors who have been in any way critical — including “the woman in Michigan” — will himself take credit for the recovery.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.
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