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Trump’s Biggest Mistake During the Coronavirus Pandemic Was Claiming ‘Total Authority’ Over States Reopening

President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House, Monday, April 13, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

No response to a pandemic can go perfectly, but overall, President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has gone quite well, despite the media’s attempt to persuade you otherwise. Despite the regulatory conundrum that slowed down testing early on, the federal government’s response to the outbreak has been unprecedented. Before there had even been a confirmed coronavirus death in the United States, President Trump had set up a task force, instituted screening at airports, and banned travel with China. Before the coronavirus was even a main topic of discussion for the public, the NIH was already working on developing a vaccine. Rather than waiting months to declare a national emergency (like Barack Obama did with H1N1) Trump made his national emergency declaration two days after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic.

But Trump did make a rather bad misstep this week when he claimed to have “total” authority over the country reopening.

“When somebody is president of the United States, your authority is total,” he said.

President Trump has certain powers during a national emergency declaration and he has the power to let the emergency declaration expire. He can ease federal government recommendations for social distancing, but the various shutdowns were implemented by each state and local government, and the states and local governments have to lift them.

Trump’s claiming total authority over the issue of reopening the states conflicts with his previous criticisms of governors for failing to properly handle the coronavirus pandemic in their states. While likely driven by politics, several Democrat governors were quick to criticize Trump over the federal government’s response to the pandemic, even though it is not the job of the federal government to micromanage pandemic response in every state. Each state has responded to the coronavirus pandemic in its own way. When Trump issued social distancing recommendations, states responded at their own pace.

I understand Trump’s frustration with the economy being shut down, especially considering evidence that reaction to the coronavirus may have been overblown, but claiming total authority over reopening states implies he had the authority to shut them down—which he correctly stated previously he didn’t. Some states have performed well during the pandemic, others have not. Heck, New York City alone skews both New York State’s figures and those of the United States. Local leadership matters and President Trump doesn’t want to accept responsibility for the failures of New York City’s leaders to take the coronavirus seriously.

It’s certainly possible that Trump will scale back social distancing recommendations in the next few weeks and some states may ignore those looser recommendations. As much as many of us would like to see the economy rolling again, there are those of us who believe in federalism and we have to take the bad with the good. I live in New York State, and much of what’s happening statewide in terms of social distancing requirements is being dictated by the disaster that has become of downstate.

Thankfully, Trump has walked back his earlier comments, saying that he won’t pressure governors to reopen their states. “The governors are going to be running their individual states,” he said.

I want things to open back up as much as Trump does. But, I don’t want Trump establishing a precedent that the president of the United has “total authority” over anything. For eight years we saw Barack Obama expand the powers of the presidency well beyond constitutional limits without any accountability, I don’t want Trump falling into that trap.

Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t been perfect, but there’s no doubt it’s better than what we would have experienced under Hillary Clinton, or Joe Biden, even Barack Obama. One of the most consequential decisions he made was the closing of travel with China, which we can confidently say neither Clinton, nor Biden, nor Obama would have done as early, if at all, in these circumstances. But I don’t care who the president is, when you start talking about “total authority” it makes me nervous. Sure, I trust President Trump more than I ever trusted Barack Obama, but it’s likely that one day in the future a liberal Democrat will be in the White House again, and we don’t want him or her talking about having “total authority” to do something and citing President Trump as the precedent.

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Matt Margolis is the author of Trumping Obama: How President Trump Saved Us From Barack Obama’s Legacy and the bestselling book The Worst President in History: The Legacy of Barack Obama. You can follow Matt on Twitter @MattMargolis

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