Trump’s Pandemic Plan: “Absolute Authority,” No Responsibility

Since the start of his Presidency, Donald Trump has claimed the
“absolute right” to do an astonishing array of things.

The novel coronavirus brings out the same old, same old President.

A week ago, President Trump foreshadowed his growing anxiety over when and how to end the Great Shutdown, a decision he is well aware will have existential consequences—for his own political future. He called the question of reopening the country amid the coronavirus pandemic “the biggest decision I’ll ever make” and “by far the biggest decision of my life.” Yet by the time Trump advertised a “Major News Conference” for Thursday evening, there was little suspense from a man who has been tweeting about a “LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL” and who declared, on March 24th, that he wanted church pews “packed” by Easter. Trump backed off the Easter deadline within days of promoting it, and he repeated the act this week, with a May 1st date and a new plan for “OPENING UP AMERICA AGAIN,” which started out on Monday as an imperial diktat from an almighty President and ended up on Thursday as a mere recommendation to individual states, without a fixed date. Many governors have already announced that they will not follow his guidance. “You’re going to call your own shots,” Trump reassured them on a conference call on Thursday afternoon, according to an audio recording, which promptly leaked. “You’re going to be calling the shots.”

This might seem a head-spinning reversal. But it is classic Trump. His two most memorable lines of the covid-19 pandemic, proclaiming “absolute authority” and “no responsibility at all,” are wildly contradictory, and yet also completely consistent with his approach to governing. The novel coronavirus is truly a new type of American crisis, but it has been met by the same old, same old from America’s President: unhinged press conferences and unfounded conspiracy theories; lies, attacks, and bizarre non sequiturs; and abrupt, seemingly incomprehensible policy shifts from a leader who has no problem changing course at the expense of his own credibility.

A few weeks ago, Trump declared war on an “invisible enemy.” Now he says that he is beginning “the next front in our war” after “incredible progress” has been made. This grandiose proclamation came on a day when more than two thousand Americans died. On Wednesday, a record twenty-five hundred people died. As of Thursday, more than twenty-two million Americans have filed for unemployment since the pandemic began, a shattering statistic that came out the same morning that the Small Business Administration acknowledged that its three-hundred-and-fifty-million-dollar bailout program was already out of money. The I.M.F. now forecasts a severe recession for advanced economies like that of the United States, lasting into next year. Horror stories abound: dead bodies stashed in an empty room at a Michigan hospital; seventeen corpses hidden in a New Jersey nursing home. Yet Wall Street has had a good week. That, and signs of incipient conservative backlash against government restrictions, symbolized by a handful of protests in several Midwestern states by Trump-sign-toting crowds, are the data points the President seems to prefer.

A few weeks ago, during Trump’s reopen-by-Easter flirtation, he admitted that he based the new deadline on nothing more than his gut and how “beautiful” it would be. Now he offers a “science-based reopening” plan, which includes a vague and uncertain three-stage path for states to resume everyday life. Yet the main precondition for doing so—widespread testing—is not only not in place but, according to Trump, not his problem. “The federal government shouldn’t be forced to go and do everything,” he said on Thursday evening. This might as well be his slogan for the crisis, and for his entire Presidency: ultimate power and no responsibility.

Trump started the week by declaring, at his Monday press conference, “The President of the United States calls the shots.” In a rambling, outrage-filled performance that began with what appeared to be a Trump campaign ad featuring his Fox News confidant Sean Hannity and ended with his sweeping assertion of executive power, Trump claimed that he had the total authority to override governors and singlehandedly determine whether, when, and how each state would reopen its economy.

Reactions to that press conference, which, at two hours and twenty-three minutes, was the longest of Trump’s covid-19 briefings so far, were swift and harsh. The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, called him a wannabe “king.” The USA Today Washington bureau chief, Susan Page, tweeted, “I’ve covered six Presidents, but I’ve never covered any White House briefing quite like the one tonight.” Robby Soave, an editor at the conservative Reason magazine, called it “an utterly unhinged, childish temper tantrum.” Jim Acosta, the CNN reporter who often spars with White House officials, said it was “the biggest meltdown I have ever seen from a President of the United States in my career.”

Trump provokes superlatives—his public persona seems to require them—but it’s clear we’ve lost the vocabulary for what to call these incidents, which are not in fact outliers but recurring features of his Presidency. Search “unhinged Trump press conference” online and numerous examples pop up, from the February 6th White House “celebration,” after the end of his Senate impeachment trial, to an August 21, 2019, performance at which he insulted the Danish Prime Minister because she would not sell him Greenland. The spectacle of an infuriated Trump ranting at the press corps has become a sort of totemic ritual of this bizarre era, going back to the very first official press conference of his Presidency. Held on February 16, 2017, it was an impromptu affair in which Trump rebutted reports of chaos in his White House (“The Administration is running like a fine-tuned machine,” he said), called the Trump-Russia probe “fake news,” bragged about his television ratings, and denied that his attacks on the press showed he was out of control. “I am not ranting and raving,” he said. “I’m just telling you know you’re dishonest people.” When it was over, CNN’s Jake Tapper tried to sum it up. “It was unhinged. It was wild,” he told viewers. More than three years later, the coronavirus shutting down virtually the entire planet is a novelty, but Trump holding an unhinged press conference, alas, is not.

Given how extraordinary the events of the past six weeks have been, you might think Trump would put aside his previous preoccupations or rewrite his own playbook to accommodate the deaths of thirty thousand Americans. But you would be wrong. He has continued to attack “Crazy Nancy” Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, with whom he has not spoken since the end of his Senate impeachment trial, and even did so just hours before Thursday’s press conference, at which he solemnly intoned about the need for Democrats and Republicans to work together. At his daily coronavirus press conferences, Trump has complained about being taken advantage of by European allies and touted his wall with Mexico, themes that he has stressed since he first took office. Even in making the most sweeping claim of his Presidency, to have “absolute power” over the states in the pandemic, Trump on Monday was not so much making a novel assertion as reverting to one of his favorite rhetorical devices.

From the start of his Presidency, Trump has claimed the “absolute right” to do an astonishing array of things. Indeed, the list of those previously undeclared and previously unknown Presidential rights and authorities is so long and disparate that the only thing they seem to have in common is the fact that Trump has claimed to have them. In just the past few months, the President has asserted the “absolute right” to fire the intelligence-community inspector general, whose handing of a whistle-blower complaint eventually triggered Trump’s impeachment, as well as the “absolute right” to interfere in the federal sentencing process of his friend Roger Stone. Last winter, he asserted the “absolute right” to ask “Other Countries” to investigate corruption, which is the President’s description of his interactions with Ukraine that led to his impeachment.

Many of Trump’s claims to “absolute” power, however, have proved to be exactly the sort of bluster that accompanied his overblown rhetoric this week: he wants to be seen as all-powerful in the fight against the pandemic, but without actually exercising the powers he purports to have. This, also, is vintage Trump. He has, after all, previously asserted the “absolute right” to order American businesses out of China, to eliminate the Constitution’s guarantee of birthright citizenship, and to shut down the U.S.’s entire southern border without ever actually doing any of those things. Trump repeatedly said he had the “absolute right” to fire the special counsel Robert Mueller, who was investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf, although he never did so. He also said that, had the Mueller investigation worked out differently, “I have the absolute right to PARDON myself.” He has not done that yet, either. Just this week, Trump asserted his power to unilaterally adjourn Congress, a power which has never before been exercised by any President. Has there ever been another President to articulate a view of the Constitution as sweeping as the one that Trump asserts? “I have an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as President,” Trump famously said last summer.

President I Can Do Whatever I Want may not have reckoned on a virus as his enemy, but these past few weeks of national emergency have displayed a Trump who has never been more Trumpian. He is the same flawed President he has been for the past three years and eighty-nine days. His political playbook is the same. He has no new moves. He has not grown, or even changed much, in the office. Nor will he.

Susan B. Glasser