A president who spent precious weeks failing to provide national leadership as coronavirus cases multiplied is now claiming authority he doesn't have. President Donald Trump's unhinged pandemic briefing Monday looked like a parody — peevish, self-centered, dishonest — but it also portends a serious constitutional showdown over how the nation should reopen for business. Trump declared his "authority is total" on that front, which is plainly false and dangerously dictatorial.
Bluster isn't leadership. Trump's failure to provide the real thing has prompted governors to negotiate among themselves on the pace of their states' reopening. At this point, that's the only path.
Trump has lurched from one extreme to another while trying to cope with the challenges of this pandemic. His leadership void has yielded federal confusion and chaos.
His one early action — restricting travel from China in January — was so typically xenophobic that he allowed tens of thousands of returning Americans to slip right through with little or no screening. He wasted precious weeks that could have been used for preparation and stockpiling test kits. Mass testing from the start could have made much of the nationwide economic shutdown unnecessary. Trump ignored the scientists advising him and opted instead for wishful thinking, assuring the nation repeatedly that the virus wasn't a threat.
When he finally took action, it was erratic. Ego-driven grievances undermined his credibility and destroyed goodwill. He declined to coordinate nationally to get ventilators where they were needed, telling governors to get them on their own, sparking bidding wars that drove up prices.
"They have to treat us well," he admonished governors who pleaded for federal assistance to save lives. His irresponsible statements about getting Americans back to work by Easter reflected an overwhelming desire to avert an economic catastrophe that would endanger his reelection.
Refusing to make the stay-at-home call at the federal level, Trump left that decision to governors, resulting in a haphazard array of rules. Some governors ordered border checkpoints to regulate travel from other states. Trump didn't have the authority to overrule governors then, and he doesn't have it now.
Yet at Monday's confrontational White House briefing — a bizarre spectacle that included a campaign-like video touting Trump's leadership — he claimed he could unilaterally decree a lifting of the states' stay-at-home orders at any time. "When somebody's president of the United States, the authority is total," said Trump, displaying stunning ignorance of the Constitution. "It's total. And the governors know that."
It's not total, and what the governors know is that they can't count on Trump for competent leadership in this crisis. That's why several governors are now coordinating in groups about when and how to reopen their economies.
Having assumed the role of bystander, the president forced governors to manage this crisis as best they could. Autocratic tantrums by a self-declared wartime president won't restore respect that he hasn't earned.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
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