Can Trump 'override' states' pandemic decisions? Will he?

When states balk at stay-at-home orders, Trump emphasizes "federalism." When they're prepared to maintain the orders, his emphasis is ... different.
Image: President Donald Trump at a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on April 5, 2020.
President Donald Trump at a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on April 5, 2020.Joshua Roberts / Reuters

During the White House's press briefing on April 4, a reporter noted that a number of governors, each of whom are Republicans, "have refused to issue these statewide stay-at-home orders." The journalist asked Donald Trump why he simply doesn't urge these allied governors to take the step.

"We have a thing called the Constitution, which I cherish," the president replied.

A couple of days later, following a similar line of inquiry about GOP-led states that aren't issuing stay-at-home directives, Trump added, "You know, we do have a constitutional problem in doing that. You understand that. I mean, there's a double -- there's a double-edged sword. You understand. I can do it, but it is a constitutional -- you can say 'federalist,' you can say there's lots of different reasons, where I would rather have the governors do it, make their own determination."

As a legal matter, the pitch is badly flawed. There's nothing in the Constitution that prevents a president from directing states to issue stay-at-home orders. Indeed, as is evident around the world, most countries responding to the coronavirus pandemic have done so with coordinated national policies. Trump prefers a let-states-figure-it-out model, not because of legal restrictions, but because he prefers a model in which he can distribute blame.

But there's a flip side to this: as Trump impatiently eyes a plan to lift existing restrictions, the White House realizes that many states will leave the current guidelines in place past May 1, whether the president likes it or not. It creates a dynamic that's largely the opposite of the one reporters pressed him on two weeks ago: instead of states bucking the national trend and refusing to issue stay-at-home orders, Trump may soon be confronted with a group of governors who refuse to lift stay-at-home orders.

On Friday, it led a reporter to ask, "Now that you say you want to reopen parts of the economy, what authority do you have to do that? Isn't that ultimately up to the states to do that?" According to the official transcript, Trump replied:

"Yeah. Yeah -- no, it's really -- the states can do things if they want. I can override it if I want."

Oh? He can?

Later in the same briefing, another reporter added, "The same way that it's up to the states to shut it down, it's up to them to reopen. What authority do you have?"

The president responded, "I have great authority if I want to use it."

Taken together, when it comes to states balking at stay-at-home orders, Trump's emphasis is on "federalism." When it comes to states prepared to maintain stay-at-home orders, Trump's emphasis is on his "great authority" and ability to "override" gubernatorial decisions.

A cynic might wonder if perhaps the president is less than sincere about his purported principles.