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Trump Walks Back Claim of ‘Absolute’ Authority Over States  


President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House, in Washington, April 14, 2020.
President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House, in Washington, April 14, 2020.

Facing intense criticism, U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday walked back earlier comments suggesting he has total authority to reopen the economy from the coronavirus crisis.

In comments to White House reporters Monday, Trump contended that he alone would make the decision on when and how to send Americans back to work and reopen businesses, rather than the country’s governors and mayors who issued the orders for hundreds of millions of people to shelter in place.

Legal scholars challenged Trump's stance as constitutionally dubious.

“There isn’t a single person in America who has studied this issue who agrees with him,” said Paul Rosenzweig, a senior legal fellow at the R Street Institute, a conservative and libertarian think tank in Washington.

John Yoo, a conservative legal scholar who often defends Trump on Fox News, rejected the president’s absolutist claim of presidential authority.

"The Constitution’s grant of limited, enumerated powers to the national government does not include the right to regulate either public health or all business in the land," Yoo, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote in the conservative National Review.

Trump made the claim at a White House news conference Monday during which he was pressed by reporters about his authority to reopen the economy.

“When somebody is president of the United States, the authority is total,” he told reporters. “The governors know that.”

Trump asserted that there are “numerous provisions” in the Constitution that give him the authority to reopen local and state economies.

But on Tuesday, Trump appeared to reverse himself.

"Governors will be running individual states," Trump told reporters at the White House.

Legal experts noted that there are no constitutional provisions that give the president absolute authority over states. The U.S. Constitution gives the federal government the authority to regulate “interstate commerce” while giving states the power to maintain public order and safety within their borders. This division of power is known as federalism.

Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who testified as a Republican witness against Trump’s impeachment in December, noted that Trump “spent weeks correctly stating that basic principle of federalism.”

Trump made that argument when he insisted it was the states’ responsibility to acquire the necessary ventilators, respirators, surgical masks, hospital beds and other equipment required to treat the hundreds of thousands of people stricken with COVID-19, while the federal government could supplement the supplies.

Last month, the federal government issued guidelines advising Americans to refrain from gatherings of more than 10 people and taking other precautions to avoid contracting and spreading the coronavirus. But the nation’s governors and mayors issued the binding orders to close businesses and schools and urged people to stay home as much as possible.

“Now, he appears to have done a 180 on the issue and claiming that while governors can put these orders in place, he has absolute authority to lift them," Turley wrote in a scathing blog post.

In the past, Trump’s expansive views of executive power, backed by Attorney General William Barr, have put him at loggerheads with Congress. Now, his assertion of control over states raises new questions about just how far the president’s writ runs.

A Justice Department spokesperson did not respond to VOA’s question about whether Barr agrees with Trump’s latest claim of presidential authority.

But not all legal experts are taking Trump’s words at face value. Joyce Lee Malcolm, a professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, said Trump sometimes makes such assertions “out of pique.”

“He has been very careful to actually work with the states just giving guidance,” Malcolm said. “So, I don’t imagine he would ever try to take over that kind of power.”