April 13, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Trump Declares Power to Nullify States Rights
He implied he has authority to force states to "reopen."
The president has been talking nonstop about the need to “reopen” the economy. Yes, we’re midway through a deadly pandemic. Yes, the new coronavirus has killed more than 22,000 Americans in a month. Yes, “reopening” the economy is unwise to anyone who is not Donald Trump. Getting reelected is his top priority, not your good health.
Sadly, the press corps has been repeating news of his pending decision to “reopen” the economy without scrutinizing the implicit claim at the heart of Trump’s decision: that the president has the constitutional authority and power to “reopen” an economy and thus to force state governors with differing and competing objectives to comply.
Thanks to acquittal, the president isn’t above the law. He is the law. There are no United States. Trump is the state.
Before I go on, let’s be clear that the rhetoric of “reopening” makes little sense. The economy never closed. It can’t therefore be “reopened.” To be sure, the Trump administration issued guidelines for implementing “social distancing” for the purpose of slowing the spread of the new coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19. But these public-health guidelines from the CDC are not the same thing as “closing” the economy. Easing them, or lifting them, is not the same thing as “reopening” the economy. If Trump had ordered a lock-down across all 50 states, there’d be substance behind the rhetoric of “reopening.” But he hasn’t done even that, to the dismay of governors from both parties, because getting reelected is his top priority, not you.
If the president had ordered a lock-down across all 50 states, he would have damaged the economy (for the right reasons), but he would also have been responsible for the damage (again, for the right reasons). If there’s one constant in this random, arbitrary and chaotic presidency, it’s that Donald Trump is never responsible for anything.
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Fortunately, for him, our system of government was designed to divide authority (and therefore responsibility) between and among Washington and the states. That gives Trump a context in which he can make-believe presidenting without actually being presidential, all the while blaming governors for outcomes largely of his own creation.
Unfortunately, for us, Trump has as much disrespect for our federalist tradition as he does willingness to exploit it by whatever means necessary to maintain power. One means is getting the press corps to uncritically repeat news of his pending decision to “reopen” a national economy comprising 50 states with 50 governors from both parties, most of whom privilege public health over Trump’s reelection. In other words, by declaring, implicitly at first and then explicitly, powers he does not in fact have.
This morning, the president said:
For the purpose of creating conflict and confusion, some in the Fake News Media are saying that it is the Governors decision to open up the states, not that of the President of the United States & the Federal Government. Let it be fully understood that this is incorrect. … It is the decision of the President, and for many good reasons.
With that being said, the Administration and I are working closely with the Governors, and this will continue. A decision by me, in conjunction with the Governors and input from others, will be made shortly! (my emphasis)
Make no mistake. This is a staggering statement.
Trump is saying in the clearest terms possible that a president has more authority in a state than that state’s governor. He’s implying, though not saying, that a governor must comply with his “order” to “reopen” that state’s economy. Again, “reopening” is a canard. He can’t reopen what never closed. And even if “reopening” the economy were a goal, lifting “social distancing” guidelines isn’t going to achieve it. What’s at stake here, in addition to public health (forcing governors to “reopen” in the middle of a pandemic will get people killed), is the very thing making us the United States.
Making this doubly staggering is that Trump is a Republican, whose party for the last half century glorified the rights and sovereignty of the states in order to slow, or prevent, the federal government’s “interference” with their sociopolitical orders. States then were protecting apartheid. States now are protecting public health. Yet the GOP president, pursuing his own self-interest, seems ready to nullify their sovereignty.
Usurping the power of state governors (specifically, declaring to have the legitimate authority to usurp state governors) is a natural outcome, I think, of Trump’s acquittal. When the Senate found him not guilty of treason, and of denying the constitutional authority of the Congress, it set the stage for conflict with governors. The president isn’t above the law. He is the law. There are no United States. He is the state.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.