Why Trump's 'liberate' rhetoric makes so little sense

Governors were free to call their own shots, unless the president disagreed with those shots, at which point he'd effectively endorse civil disobedience.
Image: President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House
President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Sunday, April 19, 2020.Patrick Semansky / AP

As recently as Thursday, Donald Trump had abandoned his posture about having "total" authority over all pandemic decision-making. The new White House position was detachment: "You're going to call your own shots," the president told governors on a videoconference call.

The administration had crafted guidelines, but it was up to state and local officials to follow them, or not, in full or in part, at their discretion.

What Trump neglected to mention is that his pronouncement came with some fine print: governors were free to call their own shots, unless the president disagreed with those shots, at which point he'd effectively endorse civil disobedience.

When President Donald Trump tweeted "LIBERATE MINNESOTA!" on Friday morning, some of his most fervent supporters in far-right communities -- including those who have agitated for violent insurrection -- heard a call to arms. The tweet was one of three sent from the president's account, along with "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" and "LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!"

Those trying to follow the logic of the president's latest position were quickly caught in a gordian knot: Trump wants states to follow federal guidelines and re-open as conditions allow, and simultaneously, Trump wants states to ignore the federal guidelines and re-open when far-right protestors demand it.

At a White House press briefing held after he published the provocative tweets, the president justified his "liberate" directives by saying some states have created public-health standards that are "too tough." Asked whether far-right protestors risked spreading the virus through their activism, Trump added, "No, these are people expressing their views."

The last time I checked, expressing one's views does not create immunity during a pandemic.

Regardless, it's worth pausing to appreciate why Trump's "liberate" nonsense is so problematic.

It's dangerous. The president has obviously noticed that elements of his far-right base are agitating to end stay-at-home orders, and he's begun taking steps to publicly encourage them. The result is a greater likelihood that the coronavirus will spread among those engaged in civil disobedience, further endangering lives, taxing medical facilities, and delaying possible progress.

It's needlessly partisan. Trump only seems interested in "liberating" states with Democratic governors. States like Maryland or Ohio have imposed similar restrictions, but since they're led by Republican governors, the president seems inclined to give them a pass.

It's divisive: The American mainstream seems to understand quite well that the current sacrifices are needed to save lives. Instead of celebrating those doing their civic duty, the president is egging on a radical and misguided minority, fomenting division at exactly the wrong time.

It's incoherent. The White House set its own benchmarks that states are supposed to reach before re-opening. Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia have not yet met those benchmarks. With his "liberate" messages, the president was basically encouraging these states to follow and ignore his own administration's guidelines at the same time.

It's legally dubious. Mary McCord, legal director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and a former acting U.S. assistant attorney general for national security, questioned whether Trump, with his unfortunate tweets, was offering "at least tacit encouragement to citizens to take up arms against duly elected state officials of the party opposite his own." McCord added that inciting insurrection is illegal.

Trump's posture is many things. Effective leadership during a deadly crisis isn't one of them.