16 April 2020
16 April 2020

In the midst of a pandemic that has already claimed tens of thousands of American lives, the President of the United States appears more obsessed with his own welfare — his own power — than the welfare of the country.

If you need any evidence, just take a look at the daily coronavirus briefing held at the White House on April 13th.

As he walked to the podium, Donald Trump was clearly fuming about a series of recent newspaper articles in the Washington Post and New York Times that told a frightening tale. Based on interviews with dozens of sources, these front page stories detailed how the president ignored warnings of a coming pandemic from late January until early March.

Trump has repeatedly said that nobody knew that there would be a disease outbreak of this size and scope.

But according to these reports, there were medical experts in the U.S. government who had a strong suspicion the respiratory illness that broke out in Wuhan, China back in late 2019 would soon create havoc in the United States. They raised the alarm months ago. So did public health experts and even the president’s own trade advisor.

All their words fell on deaf ears — unheard by a president who seemed more consumed with his re-election campaign. It wasn’t until mid-March — after weeks of precious preparation time had been lost and the stock market had begun a downward slide— that Donald Trump began to take action.

Trump — aka “the showman-in-chief” — took over the daily COVID-19 briefings at the White House where he basked in the praise of others and declared the federal government to be doing a great job in this war against an unseen enemy. And if there were problems — shortages, say, of medical equipment and disease testing — well, that was the fault of leaders at the state and local level.

The Trump show evolved into a rhythm of presidential misstatements, attacks on the news media and the occasional nugget of useful information from one of the doctors on his coronavirus task force.

But then, on the 13th, it spiraled out of control.

The president opened the briefing with a video lauding his achievements that looked for all the world like a campaign ad. When asked who put the video together, he said it was the work of White House aides. If so, it was a clear violation of U.S. campaign law which bars government employees from engaging in any such activities.

It was jarring… and it was only the beginning.

Trump then declared any delay in America’s response to the coronavirus threat was the fault of the media — saying it was journalists and not the the White House that downplayed the risk from the start.  This, from a man who said back in late February that “the press is in hysteria mode” over this new disease.

He got steadily angrier. The rhetoric got worse.

Finally, the president — who once declared he bore no responsibility for mistakes made in the government’s handling of the pandemic  — said he is the ultimate decision maker in America and that he alone, and not the nation’s governors, will decide when the states will “reopen for business.”

The exact quote goes: “When somebody is President of the United States, the authority is total. And that is the way it has got to be. It’s total… it’s total and the governors know that.”

With all due respect, Mr. President, that is a lie. Go read any high school American history text. Ours is a federal system, where the central government shares power with the states.

It is all there in that most revered of documents — The U.S. Constitution. Read it, Mr. President, when you get a chance.

If you like — since you have little patience for official documents — skip down to the 10th Amendment, which specifically says the federal government does not have absolute power:

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University here in DC and the only witness called by Republicans to testify before the Trump impeachment hearings, was among those who weighed in quickly when the president claimed he had total power:

“The Constitution was written precisely (to) deny that particular claim. It also reserved to the states (and individuals) rights not expressly given to the federal government,” Turley tweeted.

Simply put:  the system trumps authoritarianism.

The governors decided when or if to order residents of their states to stay home during the coronavirus emergency.  And it is the governors who will let them know when restrictions can be eased.

Already, along America’s coasts — where most of the early COVID-19 cases have been clustered — regional groups of governors are working together to develop long term strategies. In the northeast, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Jersey have banded together. The western group includes California, Oregon and Washington.

New York has been the hardest hit state and Governor Andrew Cuomo has said he is not interested in engaging in political warfare with the president. But during a session with reporters, Cuomo dished out a history lesson of his own:

“You have to remember it’s the states that created the federal government, right?  It’s the colonies that created the federal government, not the other way around,” he said, adding “We don’t have a king.   We have a president.”

What would he do if Donald Trump ordered him to reopen his state?   Cuomo, again highlighting the nature of power in the federal system, said he’d defy the order and, if necessary, sue the president.

“If he ordered me to reopen in a way that would endanger the public health of the people of my state, I wouldn’t do it,” Cuomo said.

What followed those comments was a scenario that has become only too familiar at the Trump White House.

Instead of admitting he was wrong, the president just shifted the focus.

He said he would work with the governors and “authorize” their own plans for opening their states.     Then he went off on a rant against the World Health Organization — saying the UN advisory body’s did not put enough pressure on China when the coronavirus threat first emerged. Trump inferred it was really the WHO that was to blame for all those lost American lives and added he would halt all U.S. contributions.

Yes, he is cutting off the flow of American money to the World Health Organization in the middle of a pandemic.

And it is worth noting that while all this was going on,  there was a pair of big developments in the U.S. presidential race.    First, Senator Bernie Sanders — just five days after giving up his quest for the Democratic Party nomination — endorsed Joe Biden. A day later, former President Barack Obama did the same, issuing a 12-minute video underscoring his support for the man who was his loyal number-two throughout his eight years in office.

In a normal election year, this would have been a big deal — front page news, to say the least.

But this is no normalcy today in America and the world.

The age of the coronavirus is here.


Paula Wolfson

Paula Wolfson is a veteran Washington correspondent who has covered three presidents and six presidential campaigns. She was the White House bureau chief for the Voice of America before switching to commercial radio, where she reported on science and health care policy, Recently she returned to her first love and is writing once again on American politics and foreign policy for halimiz.com

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