On Monday, the same Pence — who was renowned in Congress for his own devotion to limited government — affirmed Trump’s claim to totalitarian powers during the coronavirus outbreak.
It was merely the latest example of Trump claiming extremely broad authorities as president and being unbound by the Constitution, despite Pence’s Constitution Day assurances.
At a wild briefing Monday, Trump claimed no fewer than three times that he had “total” or “ultimate” authority to do things such as reopen the economy. The consensus of legal and constitutional experts is that this is false and that governors retain the power to take actions such as lifting restrictions on public gatherings.
Trump was undeterred.
Asked what authority he had to reopen the economy, he asserted, “I have the ultimate authority.”
Pressed later, he expanded: “I will put it very simply: The president of the United States has the authority to do what the president has the authority to do, which is very powerful. The president of the United States calls the shots.”
And then he upped the ante even more: “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s got to be. . . . The authority of the president of the United States having to do with the subject we’re talking about is total."
This is unquestionably false. While presidents can exercise significant, additional powers during times of war and crisis — like invoking the Defense Production Act — those powers are not limitless. Nonetheless, the limited-government conservative vice president soon vouched for Trump’s claim in no uncertain terms.
“Make no mistake about it: In the long history of this country, the authority of the president of the United States during national emergencies is unquestionably plenary,” Pence said, using a synonym for “absolute.” “And you can look back through times of war and other national emergencies.”
Trump has barked up this tree repeatedly as president, suggesting that his authority is superior to those of Congress and the judicial branch, despite the checks and balances in the Constitution.
Trump said in December 2017, “I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department.”
He said in June 2018 that he had “the absolute right to PARDON myself.”
He said in July 2019, “I have an Article II [of the Constitution], where I have to the right to do whatever I want as president.”
He offered similar comments in June 2019, saying of his authority to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, “Article II allows me to do whatever I want.”
Pence isn’t the first official to play into this notion, either. Early in Trump’s presidency, White House adviser Stephen Miller declared that “the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”
Trump’s legal team has also repeatedly argued in court cases for an extremely broad vision of executive authority and even immunity from offenses such as obstruction of justice.
As always with Trump, though, it’s important to compare what he says to what he actually does. While claiming total authority to manage the coronavirus outbreak, for instance, he has expressed reluctance to actually tell states what to do. He has also been slower than some critics would have liked to invoke the Defense Production Act, which allows the federal government to dictate the production of certain items during a time of crisis.
The claim to total authority is also discordant when it comes to Trump’s rhetoric about who deserves blame and is accountable during the outbreak. He has repeatedly said states need to take the lead when it comes to obtaining medical supplies and equipment and that the federal government isn’t some “shipping clerk.” He has also said, “I take no responsibility at all” for deficiencies in the federal testing system for coronavirus.
So while Trump says he can do whatever he wants, he doesn’t want the accountability that comes with it.
Just days ago, he was pointing out his adherence to federalism on issuing stay-at-home orders. “I like to allow governors to make decisions without overruling them, because from a constitutional standpoint, that’s the way it should be done,” Trump said Friday.
And then there’s the practical side of things. The statements Trump made Monday night were roundly criticized by conservative scholars, and they appeared to alienate one particularly important person: Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.), a tea party-supporting congressman who last year left the GOP.
While other Republicans have conveniently relaxed their emphasis on limited government in the Trump era, as the federal budget has ballooned, Amash remains perhaps the most preeminent true-believer in Congress. And he has also flirted with a third-party presidential bid, perhaps as the Libertarian Party’s nominee.
In reacting to Trump’s comments Monday night, Amash suggested he was starting to look at his options.
“Americans who believe in limited government deserve another option,” he tweeted after quoting Trump.
When a supporter responded, “please be you,” Amash replied: “Thanks. I’m looking at it closely this week.”
Amash’s entry into the presidential field, while still uncertain, could throw a wrench into the works. It’s not clear he would necessarily hurt Trump, but his presence in the race as a congressman from Michigan, one of the most vital states on the electoral map, could have a significant impact on the race.
And it could mean that Trump’s bluster — which seems likely to amount to little more than that, as it has before — could actually mean something.