As head of a political party that often promotes the necessity of limited government, it’s ironic that President Donald Trump bristles at the notion of adhering to these limits.
He asserted Monday during a news conference on the novel coronavirus pandemic that the president’s authority “is total” in deciding when various restrictions imposed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic should be lifted. The president is the one “who calls the shots,” he said, and this overrides whatever governors want to do in their respective states.
“When you say my authority, the president’s authority, not mine, because it’s not me. This is when somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total and that’s the way it’s got to be,” Mr. Trump said when responding to a question directed at him about “your authority.”
“The governors know that,” he said. “The authority of the president of the United States having to do with the subject we’re talking about is total.”
Also on Monday, Mr. Trump tweeted this:
“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....”
Mr. Trump was correct that he was referring to authority the president of the United States has, not him personally. But he was wrong to claim that presidents have this particular authority over states.
Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who is a well-known authority on the U.S. Constitution, tweeted this Monday:
“Pres Trump stated that ‘When somebody is president of the United States, his authority is total.’ The Constitution was written precisely [to] deny that particular claim. It also reserved to the states (& individuals) rights not expressly given to the federal government.”
In an article published Monday, Reason magazine refuted Mr. Trump’s assertion of total authority over states with this:
“For starters, quarantines and other public health directives fall under ‘police power,’ which is distinctly designated to the states. The Supreme Court confirmed in 1824 that quarantine laws fall under state purview. The federal government’s powers include printing money, regulating commerce between the states and between parties outside the U.S. and those within the U.S., and waging war. It cannot force the states, which are expressly granted their own sovereignty by way of the 10th Amendment, to reopen their economies.”
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo reacted to the president’s comments like he usually does: He threatened legal action.
“If he ordered me to reopen in a way that would endanger the public health of the people of my state, I wouldn’t do it. And we would have a constitutional challenge between the state and the federal government, and that would go into the courts. And that would be the worst possible thing he could do at this moment, would be to act dictatorial and to act in a partisan, divisive way.”
Thankfully, Mr. Trump has backed away from his claim.
“Hours after suggesting that the bipartisan concerns of governors about his assertion of power would amount to an insurrection, Trump abruptly reversed course, saying he would leave it to governors to determine the right time and manner to revive activity in their states,” according to a story published Tuesday by the Associated Press.
The backlash against his comments, from people of all political stripes, seems to have persuaded Mr. Trump to change his tune. This is a good development, and it offers a vital lesson.
Whether we’re a supporter or frequent critic of the president’s, we all have an obligation to speak truth to power. We want Mr. Trump to succeed in his stated goal of containing this outbreak and preventing as many deaths as possible.
But this requires us to check him against false claims that he makes because lives are on the line. There’s nothing unpatriotic about reminding him what the Constitution says he can and can’t do.