This morning I ran a column in the Washington Post on the President’s claim that he has “total” and “absolute” power to order all states to lift their pandemic orders and re-open the economy. Both Republicans and Democrats have objected to the President’s statementsin last night’s press conference. The fact is that our Constitution was designed expressly to bar such claims. Absolutes find little sanctuary in a Constitution designed for limited government with shared powers.
President Trump shocked many by his declaring that “When somebody is president of the United States, the authority is total. The governors know that.” If they “know” that, they know little about the Constitution. As I have previously written, the states and their governors hold the primary responsibility to prepare and deal with pandemics. President Trump spent weeks correctly stating that basic principle of federalism — statements that I supported. Now he appears to have done a 180 on the issue and claiming that, while governors can put these orders in place, he has absolute authority to lift them. He stated yesterday that he allowed the governors to make these decisions but that they did so only because he let them. He maintains that he always had total authority over these decisions. That position in constitutionally incomprehensible.
What is more interesting is why the President felt the need to trip this wire and draw the ire of not just Democrats but a broad array of conservative and libertarian leaders. It is also entirely unnecessary. If the federal government calls for loosening these restrictions, many governors will follow suit. Moreover, it will put huge pressure on others.
The problem is that President Trump is losing that persuasive authority with such unnerving statements about absolute power. This is a baffling and alarming claim. At a time when the President’s team is being praised for real progress on a number of fronts (and the virus appears to be generally declining or leveling off), the President quashed on the good press by triggering a debate over his claim of “ultimate,” “absolute,” and “total” power. The only thing that is clear is that these claims are not even aspirational; they are incomprehensible under of our constitutional system.