After making up powers, Trump retreats on 'total' authority

It's awfully gracious of Donald Trump to extend leeway to state officials that they already had.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump arrives to speak about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden on April 14, 2020.Alex Brandon / AP
By Steve Benen

After several states on both coasts created regional partnerships that would coordinate on re-opening plans, Donald Trump apparently decided his "I don't take responsibility at all" posture toward the pandemic made him look weak.

And so the president adopted a radically new position on Monday, stating his belief that he has "the ultimate authority" over state decisions regarding the coronavirus crisis. "The president of the United States calls the shots," Trump told reporters, adding, "When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total, and that's the way it's going to be. It's total. It's total. And the governors know that."

They really don't. In fact, as became clear yesterday, practically every fair-minded observer from the left, right, and center could agree on one thing: Trump's declaration was spectacularly wrong. If governors intend to leave stay-at-home orders in place as the crisis continues, the president doesn't have the power to overrule their directives.

With this reality in mind, Trump retreated just one day after his bizarre claim.

President Donald Trump said Tuesday he's fine with governors making their own decisions about how and when to reopen their states -- a quick retreat from the day before, when he insisted that such choices were up to only him because his "authority is total."

"I will be authorizing each individual governor, of each individual state, to implement a reopening and a very powerful reopening plan of their state in a time and a manner as most appropriate," Trump said. He added, "The governors are going to be opening up their states. They're going to declare when. They're going to know when."

I'll confess that I couldn't help but laugh a bit after hearing the president's "I will be authorizing..." phrasing, because it was a pitiful attempt at making it seem as if he was maintaining some semblance of control.

Governors who do not work for Trump do not need, and did not ask for, his permission to move forward with re-opening plans on their own timelines. But Trump wants to pretend that his "authority" is broad and imposing, so he presented his retreat yesterday in a self-congratulatory way: the president has decided to let governors who were going to do their own thing proceed with their own plans.

How gracious of him to extend leeway to state officials that they already had.

The hullabaloo Trump created on Monday has already started to fade, but the incident is a reminder of a larger phenomenon: he often just blurts stuff out without a lot of thought.

A few weeks ago, for example, the president signaled his willingness to abandon the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and re-open the nation on Easter. Soon after, he retreated.

Around the same time, Trump said he was poised to impose a two-week "enforceable quarantine" on "New York, probably New Jersey, [and] certain parts of Connecticut." A few hours later, he retreated on that, too.

This week, the president claimed powers he did not have over state-based stay-at-home orders, leading to yet another retreat. It's a reminder that taking Trump's rhetoric about his own presidency at face value is rarely a good idea.