Things unraveled the usual way.
Earlier this week, President Donald Trump tweeted that whether to “open up the states” and restart the economy “is the decision of the President,” not state governors. He doubled down on his position at an afternoon White House news conference, where he added that, as president, he has “total” authority on the subject. Fact-checkers and legal experts rushed to repudiate the claim, citing, as usual, both the Constitution and Trump’s own prior statements. Trump lacks the legal authority to override the safety measures put in place by the states, they pointed out, and his tweets are inconsistent with his own insistence earlier this month that it’s up to state governors whether to impose the lockdowns in the first place.
The commentators aren’t wrong. But the interesting question is not really whether Trump has constitutional footing to forcibly compel states and municipalities to rescind the lockdown orders, but why he is inclined to assert that the decision to do so lies with him. And the even more interesting question is what powers Trump could, within his constitutional bounds, invoke to get businesses back open and Americans back on the streets.
Trump’s claim that he can unilaterally restart the economy is legally hard to square with his decision not to issue national lockdown guidance and to place the onus for such decisions on state governors. But politically, the two positions can be reconciled. An administration attuned to the latest public-health data on the coronavirus threat might be expected to move decisively toward a lockdown and to exhibit caution and incrementalism in advising rollbacks. Call it the London Breed model, for the San Francisco mayor now being lauded for declaring a citywide emergency and banning large gatherings back in February, in the face of intense political flak and well before most of the rest of the country’s leaders took action. An administration that views the risks and rewards of its response primarily through unemployment figures, however, might be expected to take the opposite tack—that is, hesitate to recommend widespread lockdown measures for fear of being blamed for the financial fallout and then seek a conspicuous role in easing those measures in the hopes of reaping the political upside that comes with an economic rebound. This is the Trump model.