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Opinion George Conway: Trump simply doesn’t understand his job

A photographer wearing a face mask is in the foreground as President Trump speaks during Monday's White House press briefing on the coronavirus. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Among Donald Trump’s many flaws as president is one that’s as fundamental as any: He simply doesn’t understand his job. When he ran a private company, one he owned, Trump could command all its constituent parts to do his bidding and make the rules himself. You’d think by his fourth year in the White House, he would have learned that the presidency doesn’t work that way. But obviously he hasn’t.

Trump made this clear during his briefing Monday, with an extraordinary series of statements about presidential power — well, perhaps extraordinary for anyone but him. Referring to restrictions that states have imposed to fight covid-19, Trump claimed: “The authority of the president of the United States having to do with the subject we’re talking about, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be. … It’s total. The governors know that.”

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In other words, he claims the power to force the entire country to back to work, regardless of what state or local officials say. “They can’t do anything without the approval of the president of the United States,” Trump asserted. “I have the ultimate authority,” he said.

Who told you that?” a reporter asked; Trump wouldn’t say. And no doubt, couldn’t: No competent presidential adviser would tell him that. Certainly no lawyer.

It’s no excuse for Trump that he’s not a lawyer, and that, as conservative commentator Andrew C. McCarthy put it, Trump “frequently gets out over his skis when he discusses constitutional law” — that, indeed, he “mangles” it. Trump took a solemn oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. After his years in the job, he ought to know something about that document.

President Trump calls criticism of his coronavirus response "fake," yet cherry-picks news clips to make his case. He can't have it both ways, says Erik Wemple. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford / WP; Alex Brandon / AP/The Washington Post)

Particularly as a supposed “conservative,” Trump ought to know something about the relationship between the federal government and the states. For decades, if not centuries, conservatives — not just the conservative lawyers Trump seeks to put on the bench, but non-lawyers — have harped on the importance of the 10th Amendment: “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.” In our federal system, the states aren’t under Washington’s control, the way a corporate subsidiary might be owned by, say, the Trump Organization.

But it’s not just federalism that Trump misapprehends. It’s grade-school-level civics that the president carries out laws, not his whims or desires, however laudatory or popular they might be. The very Article II that he has claimed gives him “the right to do whatever I want as president,” actually says something quite different: not only that “he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” but also that, if he needs authority to do something for the good of the country, he should go to Congress, “and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Faithfully executing the law means not only enforcing it but also abiding by it — including its limitations.

And there’s no exception for emergencies. Law students studying the Constitution — and plenty of middle and high school students of U.S. government and history as well — learn about the Supreme Court’s famous “Steel seizure case,” Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer. In April 1952, the nation was at war, in Korea, and the nation’s steelworkers went on strike. Having tried unsuccessfully to mediate between the workers and the steel companies, President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order directing the commerce secretary to take immediate control of most of the nation’s steel mills. The steel companies challenged the order, and within a month, the case was in the Supreme Court.

Truman lost, even though the country was at war, even though steel procurement was essential to the prosecution of the war, and even though the Constitution made him, as president, commander in chief of the armed forces. The Supreme Court’s majority opinion was written by Justice Hugo L. Black, then the court’s leading textually oriented conservative.

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Black wrote: “The President’s power, if any, to issue the order must stem either from an act of Congress or from the Constitution.” There was no enabling act of Congress — the government didn’t even cite one, and, in fact, Congress had once rejected a proposal that would have allowed emergency government seizures to settle labor disputes. And as for the Constitution, the court found that nothing in Article II, the article on the presidency, provided for the seizure. “In the framework of our Constitution, the President’s power to see that the laws are faithfully executed refutes the idea that he is to be a lawmaker,” Black explained. "The president’s order does not direct that a congressional policy be executed in a manner prescribed by Congress — it directs that a presidential policy be executed in a manner prescribed by the President.” For that reason, the court concluded, “this seizure order cannot stand.”

Trump would do well to learn these basic tenets of American constitutional law, if only because it’s his job to follow them, and because doing so would make him a more effective president. But Trump still thinks that he, alone, has ultimate authority to call all the shots — much as he did on the 25th floor of Trump Tower. And it’ll never be otherwise. Because the one thing Trump will never be able to accept about the exalted office he holds is that, unlike his company, it doesn’t belong to him.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Trump’s authority isn’t ‘total.’ But his unfitness is.

Greg Sargent: Here’s what really matters about Trump’s despotic claim of ‘total’ authority

Eugene Robinson: President Trump can’t reopen the country. Only we can do that.

Alexandra Petri: The Trump administration’s guide to federalism

The Post’s View: Times like these require political courage to respect our values. Trump is failing to do that.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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