Monday, April 13, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He claimed absolute power.

Trump had a wild and—even by his standards—emotionally raw "coronavirus" briefing today, most of which was devoted to angry political score-settling and the airing of a campaign video. But the political theme of the day was Trump's open declaration that he has absolute and unlimited power.

It started this morning with tweets:

Pressed on this by reporters who knew better this afternoon, Trump dug in. "When somebody's the president of the United States, the authority is total," Trump insisted during a particularly heated shouting match with a reporter. "And the governors know that." At other points he declared that "the president of the United States calls the shots" and "the federal government has absolute power."

All of this is factually wrong, but alarmingly, Trump may genuinely believe it's true. It's not the first time he's claimed that the Constitution lets him "do whatever I want."

Trump could have issued emergency orders restricting travel or closing businesses nationwide, but—nervous about the bearing political responsibility—insisted that state governors do so instead. In fact, he was so anxious about it that he called the federal government a "backup" in cases of national emergency. (He also ordered the federal government to seize medical supplies from states and bid against them for new supplies.)

But having shut nothing down himself, Trump has no power as president, either legally or under the Tenth Amendment, to overrule emergency orders issued by governors or state legislatures. 

Even more important, Trump has no power as president to insist that private businesses reopen, or that employees return to work (or be rehired), or that Americans go back to restaurants and movie theaters and airports and schools against their better judgment. He can only try to convince Americans that it is worth the risk to end social distancing in a country with no widespread testing, no herd immunity, and hundreds of thousands more actively contagious carriers now than when it first spread to the United States.

Why does this matter?

  • The presidency is not a dictatorship, no matter how much any president might want it to be.
  • Taxpayer-funded press conferences are not campaign opportunities or therapy sessions.
  • It's really bad if the president has a temper tantrum in public.