Once again, Trump has proven that he was absent from school when they learned that our Founding Fathers took steps to ensure that our country was not ruled by a monarch and that the powers of the President and the federal government aren’t unlimited. Some days it’s hard to decide whether he doesn’t know that he’s not actually King of America, or whether he just doesn’t care.
On Monday, while accompanying himself on his invisible accordion, Trump asserted his “ultimate authority” to reopen the government. “The president of the United States calls the shots,” he said. And “When somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total. It’s total. It’s total.” And: “The Federal Government has absolute power.”
You could hear the collective gasp from reporters in the room, all of whom understand that the power of the president is not absolute. It must have come as quite a shock to hear the actual President of the United States stand there, just over six feet away, and assert that he had “total authority.”
They pushed back with “You said [the president’s power is total]. That is not true. Who told you that?” “Has any governor agreed that you have the authority?” And “how can you rescind [a governor’s] order?” I do wish that one of them had had the wherewithal to ask him where exactly in the Constitution he found any reference “total authority” or perhaps “How do you reconcile your assertion of absolute power with the limitations imposed by the 10th Amendment?” But in their defense, I’m sure they were gobsmacked by the absurdity of his statement, even though frankly you’d think they’d be used to absurd statements coming out of that mouth by now.
At any rate, legal scholars are generally in agreement that the “federal government lacks the power to directly order states to reopen their economies.”
The 10th Amendment states “The 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.” Meaning essentially that the federal government is limited to only the powers explicitly granted to it by the Constitution.
Authority that the federal government does have in these circumstances stem from the Commerce Clause, that is, Congress’ authority to regulate interstate and international commerce. Laws passed by Congress on that premise, for example, could control planes, trucks, and cars moving between the states. But to be clear, that’s the Congress, not the president. He’d need to convince the Democratic-controlled House to go along with him.
Additionally, the president will no doubt be able to undermine state lockdown orders by threatening to withhold federal aid to states that don’t comply. And I wouldn’t put it past him to do exactly that. It won’t be easy for governors to navigate the fine line between his proven petty vindictiveness and their need for aid and cooperation from the federal government. They’ve done a pretty admirable job of running that gauntlet so far, but an order to force them to lift their lockdowns before they’re ready will test the best of them.
He’ll also have a lot of personal power to pressure red state governors and legislators to reopen their economies. Given their cult-like worship of Trump, it would seem they’ll likely be more than happy to comply. Time will tell whether any of them have learned their lesson after recent events like the death of the Virginia pastor who held church services in defiance of warnings to limit gatherings.
I’m sure that over the next few days more news organizations, podcasts, and blogs will be publishing in-depth explanations of why Trump is so wrong and why the president does NOT have total authority. Meanwhile, here are two pretty clear explanations:
- This article from Vox: The 10th Amendment, Explained for Trump
- This article from Politico: Trump: It’s My Decision, Not Governors’, to Reopen Country
Every day, it’s something. Isn’t it?