2020 Time Capsule #14: ‘The Authority Is Total’

Leah Millis / Reuters

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In a rally-briefing lasting more than two hours this past Monday afternoon, Donald Trump issued a royalist view of executive power not once but several times. (Which is of course his tendency, with any point he wants to make.) You can see one of the clearest instances in this C-SPAN video starting around time 46:40. Trump is asked what he would do if he decided to “open up” the economy, but state governors didn’t agree. What would be his authority in that case?

“When you say my authority — it’s the president’s authority. It’s not me.

“When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s gotta be. It’s total.”

Several things were remarkable about this statement.

  • One is its mere existence—regardless of the elaborate checks-and-balances built into the Constitution, regardless of the 10th Amendment’s limits on central-government powers vis-a-vis the states’, regardless of … anything.
  • Another was the reaction of the “strict Constructionists,” “institutionalists,” libertarians, and classic conservatives who make up the GOP majority in the Senate. Rather, the absence of reaction. Of the 53 senators in that group, the number who made a public objection to a claim of absolute presidential power was …. zero, as best I could tell. Would you like an illustration of how timid this group is? Even Fox News figures dared challenge Trump’s statement on-air. (More on the silence of the Republican lambs, here, and from Charlie Sykes, a longtime Republican who is now a leading critic of Trump, here.) Governors from both parties objected, as did Democratic legislators. If only the Constitution could talk.
  • And one more was Trump’s backing off from this claim 24 hours later, when he said he would “authorize” each of the states to adjust plans as they see fit. This of course was a face-saving fiction. None of the governors had required Trump's “authorization” when they issued their stay-at-home orders, starting with early moves by Mike DeWine in Ohio, a Republican, and Gavin Newsom in California, a Democrat. None would need Trump’s okay to lift, alter, or extend their states’ plans.

I note this claim for the long-term record: An American president asserted his absolute executive authority, from a White House podium, with virtually no resistance from America’s “conservative” party.

Bullet-style, more items for the record:

  • At his rally-briefing on Tuesday afternoon, Trump announced that he was cutting off U.S. funding to the World Health Organization, WHO. This was allegedly because WHO had not been “transparent” in the early stages of the coronavirus’s spread.
    Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the renowned medical journal The Lancet, responded that Trump’s move, in the middle of a pandemic, was “a crime against humanity.” Such a judgment is usually reserved for leaders in the middle of massacres or wars.
    Twitter
  • On Tuesday the Wall Street Journal and other sources reported that federal pandemic-relief checks will soon go out with Donald Trump’s name on them. All politicians want to claim credit for their good works. (Thus the names of mayors, governors, city council members, et al. on plaques at bridges or town halls.) No previous president had tried a stunt like this. In fact, Trump isn’t authorized to sign the checks, so his name will have to go on the memo lines. And, as Lisa Rein reported in the Washington Post, Trump’s insistence on adding his name will delay the checks by several days.  
  • At the Monday session, Trump unveiled videos praising his management of the pandemic. These were widely described in the press as “propaganda.” For instance, the headline on the Washington Post piece was “Trump’s propaganda-laden, off-the-rails coronavirus briefing.” The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins called them “Orwellian.” Under questioning, Trump gladly disclosed that the videos  had been produced by the White House staff.
    Even if the videos had been scrupulously factual and meant only to boost Trump’s reelection campaign, they would have been a problem for previous administrations. In principle, presidents (like senators and representatives) are supposed to observe a church-and-state separation between “official” staff, who work for the public, and “campaign staff,” who work for the re-election. For instance, White House staffers aren’t supposed to work on or appear in campaign ads. Obviously that line has always been blurry. But previous administrations at least pretended to comply.
  • At the Monday session, Paula Reid of CBS News was pointed and persistent in her questions about the misstatements in the videos. Trump exploded at Reid, yelling that she was “disgusting” and “a fake.”
    Such naked hostility is pre-discounted as almost the norm for Trump, especially in response to female reporters or other public figures. As a reminder of how far this crudeness departs from the historic norm: Back in the fall of 1973, when Richard Nixon was at war with the press after the “Saturday Night Massacre,” he delivered what was seen at the time as an amazingly insulting rebuke.
    “Don’t get the impression that you rouse my anger,” Nixon said to assembled reporters, after listing complaints about coverage he considered unfair. Nixon gave a tight smile (as you can see here), and waited for a reporter to take the bait. Robert Pierpoint, then White House correspondent for CBS, finally said in an obviously joking tone, “Well, we have that impression.” Nixon responded with the line he had been saving up: Of course he wasn’t “angry,” Nixon explained. “You see, one can only be angry with those he respects.” There was brief silence and then an ooohhh sound from the room. Before Trump, this was as far as a president would allow himself to go in public.

There is so much unprecedented behavior, nonstop. The people now enabling Trump will someday claim that no one really knew what was happening at the time. But they know. Part of the point of this chronicle, like its 2016 predecessor, is to set out a record of what is known, while it’s going on.

They know. They’re just looking the other way.