Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan described how she felt when taking part in an early conference call with fellow governors, during which the White House “signaled” that state leaders would need to find safety and medical equipment on their own. “I realized we’d have to set up, in our state emergency-operations center, a procurement office that was going to compete with the world,” Whitmer told us. “That was a sobering moment.”
Read: Trump’s plan to save his presidency
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said yesterday that Trump’s approach shows his commitment to federalism. But he may just want to redirect blame for a rolling catastrophe that could cost him reelection. “He’d rather have the governors impose quarantines than him, because he feels they’re then responsible for any economic problems that arise,” Saikrishna Prakash, a University of Virginia law professor and the author of the book The Living Presidency, told us.
Save for a brief post-Watergate pause, presidents in the modern era have steadily amassed power within the executive branch. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Dwight Eisenhower’s federal highway system, Ronald Reagan’s push for education standards that would later morph into the Common Core—all of these chipped away at states’ authority. Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act extended the federal government’s reach by helping states fund the expansion of Medicaid programs. Amid the pandemic, Trump has sounded as if he’s prepared to push a president’s prerogatives even further, claiming at one point last month that his authority as president “is total.”
But in terms of actions, he “has basically stuck to things that are clearly within the federal jurisdiction,” said Christopher DeMuth, a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute who worked in both the Richard Nixon and Reagan administrations. “He’s used some emergency authorities, and he’s let governors and mayors take the lead. This is a sharp departure from the record in recent national emergencies.” After the September 11 terrorist attacks and the 2008 financial crisis, presidential power expanded. New executive agencies grew out of the wreckage, buttressing a model in which “the executive was king,” he told us.
Trump’s approach is “the worst of both worlds,” Bobby Chesney, a constitutional-law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told us. “He’s using the rhetoric of an authoritarian without any of the China-style payout in terms of taking charge of the actual problem. Rhetorically, at least, he’s asserting almost preposterous levels of authority. Fortunately, he’s not following through. He’s all hat and no cattle.”
A natural role for the president would be to lead the worldwide hunt for medical supplies, leveraging the government’s vast purchasing power. Trump’s reluctance to serve as what he calls a “shipping clerk” has left some governors incredulous. “It’s absolutely maddening,” Governor Jay Inslee, a Washington Democrat, told us. “It’s like being in World War II and not getting the federal government to manufacture boots … It’s very difficult to understand. I liken it to Franklin Delano Roosevelt saying, Okay, Connecticut, you build the battleship and I’ll be there at the launch and break the bottle.”