“When somebody’s president of the United States, the authority is total.” That’s what President Donald Trump boldly asserted at Monday’s coronavirus press briefing as he discussed whether he or our nation’s governors wield the power to lift restrictions states have imposed to thwart the advance of coronavirus.
The problem with Trump’s assertion is it has no basis in the Constitution. To the contrary, the main thrust of our Constitution, framed and ratified in the aftermath of the American Revolution, was to state and make the case against tyranny, exemplified in the total authority of Great Britain over the American colonies before our Declaration of Independence.
Clearly, the framers of our Constitution did not want to trade a British tyrant for an American tyrant. So they carefully crafted into our Constitution such critical principles as “checks and balances, separation of powers and shared powers” among the legislative, executive and judicial branches of our federal government.
The oath President Trump himself took reads thusly in Article II, Section 1, “Before he enter on Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation: ‘I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.’”
Moreover, the battle for ratification of our historic Constitution was won only after the approval of the first 10 amendments to our Constitution, known collectively as the Bill of Rights. Together, these rights further bolstered our Constitution’s strong stance against tyranny.
President Trump’s preposterous and unprecedented claim of total power was immediately challenged, even by leading members of his own party. “The federal government does not have absolute power,” said Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo. She went on to quote the 10th Amendment as partial proof of how our Constitution explicitly refutes Trump’s “absolute authority” view of the presidency.
The 10th Amendment states, “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.” Its intent was, and is, to further define the balance of power between the federal government and the states.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., stated changes to the social-distancing orders should be made by the governors. Federal guidelines “will be very influential. But the Constitution and common sense dictate these decisions be made at the state level.”
As President Trump heard the hoofbeats of hostility, it took him just 24 hours to reverse his claim of “total authority” over the governors. He said this on Tuesday, “I will be authorizing each governor of each individual state to implement a reopening, and a very powerful reopening plan of their state at a time and in a manner as most appropriate.”
In other words, President Trump “gave”governors the authority they already have under our Constitution.
Retired Army Col. Thomas B. Vaughn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.