You’d think that even a president who claimed “absolute authority” would step aside as groups of West Coast and East Coast governors devise strategies for reopening their economies without causing a spike in coronavirus cases. They know their hot zones and travel patterns across state borders. A president committed to the public weal might even ask the governors, “How may I help?”
But that’s not the president we have. Trump commandeered the national conversation with that ridiculous assertion – and then backed down the next day.
In a Monday tweet, he likened the governors to crew members in “Mutiny on the Bounty” and himself to the captain. In the movie, a group of sailors wrest control of the ship from the sadistic Captain Bligh. Trump may have missed the part when Bligh gets sent off in a rowboat – and the ship sails on.
The tweet also refers to “Democrat Governors.” Let the record note that one of the “mutineers,” Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, is a Republican.
Given the rising death toll from the pandemic, this should seem a poor time for Hollywood flippancy. But the stuff about “absolute authority” demanded a serious answer. You could not find a respected constitutional scholar on the left or the right to back that claim.
The 10th Amendment states that any powers not listed in the Constitution as belonging to the federal government belong to the states or to the American people. It does not say that state governors have the awful job of closing down their economies and finding scarce ventilators while the president alone has the pleasant task of telling people they can go out again.
States are responsible for most public health and policing duties. These are the areas of expertise most essential to blunting the disease’s rampage.
After executing the about-face on the “absolute authority” claim, Trump said he was “authorizing” governors to reopen their economies. Telling governors to do their job is itself an authority he doesn’t have, but in the name of dealing with this crisis, let it pass.
And it’s of little consequence. The governors’ response all this time has been to walk around him. Any return to normal life will require a gradual opening of businesses. Governors must tread carefully because, unlike other modern countries, the United States still lacks the tests to check broad populations for the virus.
Clearly, one governor, Andrew Cuomo of New York, sets Trump off above all others. Cuomo’s Churchillian leadership through the COVID-19 scourge has been hailed by Americans well outside the fake news orbit. And in the Trumpian reading of things, the firmament has room for only one star.
“Cuomo’s been calling daily, even hourly, begging for everything,” Trump said before backing off on the authority matter. “Now he seems to want Independence! That won’t happen!”
But Trump has met his match in this fellow son of Queens. “The president is clearly spoiling for a fight on this issue,” Cuomo said at his news conference. “If he wants a fight, he’s not going to get it from me.”
Cuomo pacifically added that he never denied asking the president for assistance and getting some. And he praised Trump for cutting off travel from China early in the pandemic. That reasonableness and refusal to engage were the right rejoinder.
One other concern has been the administration’s sensitivity toward the trade-offs in lifting restrictions. A crashing economy is a crisis, too, but more mingling will inevitably expose others to the virus.
Do not doubt this: With state tax revenues in free fall, few political leaders are as desperate as the governors to get things moving again. Let them do their job.