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Deeming places of worship 'essential,' Trump makes dubious threat

What's the problem with Trump ordering states to re-open houses of worship? He's posturing when he should be governing.
Image: Easter morning with the sun behind a church steepl cross.
A wood cross on an old church steeple backlighted by a rising sun. Some copy space.wwing / Getty Images

In early April, after briefly claiming he had "total" authority over state policymaking on the coronavirus pandemic, Donald Trump quickly reversed course. Rejecting the declaration he'd made a day earlier, the president announced, "The governors are going to be opening up their states. They're going to declare when."

During a videoconference with governors, he added, "You're going to call your own shots."

The trouble is, sometimes Trump doesn't like the shots governors have called, at which point he tries to tell state officials to do as he says. Take today, for example.

President Donald Trump said Friday that places of worship are "essential" and should open this weekend, threatening to override governors who don't allow churches, synagogues and mosques to reopen in the coming days.

The Republican claimed that his public declaration was correcting an "injustice" by deeming houses of worship "essential." Trump added that he expects governors -- who do not answer to him -- to follow his presidential instructions immediately, making houses of worship open "this weekend."

In his next sentence, the president said, "If they don't do it, I will override the governors."

Broadly speaking, there are three foundational problems with Trump's pitch. First, his timing could be better. It was just this week, for example, that several churches that tried to re-open too early were forced to re-close when congregants and church leaders alike were infected with the coronavirus. CNBC also reported that the CDC "tracked a cluster of coronavirus cases in rural Arkansas back to a church pastor and his wife, indicating that faith-based organizations and events could be sources of COVID-19 transmission, according to a new study published Tuesday."

And yet, there was the president, literally just a few days later, demanding that houses of worship re-open their doors and hold services -- because he says so.

Second, the idea that the president can simply order governors -- the ones he told would call their own shots -- to alter their mitigation efforts in dangerous ways is folly. Trump has no such authority. It's not up to him to decide who is and isn't an "essential" employee, and he's similarly powerless to decide when houses of worship open or close their doors.

The president really ought to understand this. On April 10, when Trump started lobbying governors to re-open parts of the economy, a reporter questioned the scope of his authority. "The states can do things if they want," he replied. "I can override it if I want."

It quickly became obvious that this was quite wrong. Trump apparently learned nothing from the incident.

And finally, let's not lose sight of the motivation behind little political stunts like these. Trump is desperate to pretend the pandemic threat has largely disappeared and life can return to normal -- not because that's true, but because he appears to be afraid of losing in November.

The "Two Corinthians" President is similarly eager to pretend he's a great champion of all things faith-based -- in November 2018, Trump claimed, "Nobody's done more for Christians or evangelicals or frankly religion than I have" -- which no doubt contributed to today's display at the White House.

But that's all it is: a display. Trump is posturing when he should be governing.