The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As covid-19 spreads, Trump makes a series of threats — many of them empty

President Trump has repeatedly claimed powers he doesn’t have and has threatened actions without following through on them. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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President Trump began the week by asserting “total” authority over the United States’ response to the coronavirus pandemic. By the end of the week, the proclamation served as a reminder of just how much bluster has characterized his response.

Shortly after making the claim that he could compel states to reopen their economies and seeing the resulting outcry against what seemed an obviously unconstitutional claim, Trump reversed course and said he would defer to governors. But it was hardly the first threat or suspect claim to power that he has made — often without following through.

This has been a feature of his presidency, with The Fix’s JM Rieger last year cataloguing the many threats Trump has made as president that he failed to follow through on.

Some of Trump’s coronavirus threats have resulted in action, including his assertion that he would withhold funding from the World Health Organization. But there remain questions about whether he can even do that. And the balance of empty threats to actions still weighs heavily in favor of the former.

Here’s a rundown of threats and claims to power Trump has made in recent weeks. This post will be updated as warranted.

Compel the reopening of states

On Monday, Trump repeatedly claimed total authority to control the reopening of the economy. “The authority of the president of the United States having to do with the subject we’re talking about is total,” he said.

He added at another point, “The president of the United States calls the shots.”

But after it was pointed out ad nauseam how false that is, Trump backed off and said this would be the authority of governors.

“Governors will be empowered to tailor [an] approach that meets the diverse circumstances of their own states,” Trump said Thursday. He added later: “So that will be a governor’s choice, and we’ll have no problem with it.”

Forcing states to shut down

Part and parcel to the above is Trump’s claim that he cannot just reopen the economy in certain states but that he can also compel them to shut things down if they aren’t successfully combating the virus.

“We’ll take very strong action against a state or a governor if we’re not happy with the job a governor is doing,” Trump said Wednesday. “We’ll let them know about it. And as you know, we have very strong action we can take, including a close-down.”

Pressed on the claim later, Trump said: “We would have the right to close down what they’re doing if we want to do that. But we don’t want to do that. And I don’t think there’ll be any reason to do that. But we have the right to do that.”

It’s less clear that the federal government couldn’t compel states to close things down in the face of a crisis (versus forcing them to reopen businesses that they want to keep shut down). But Trump’s tone on this Thursday was notably different.

Quarantining the New York metro area

Similar to the above, Trump at one point said he might impose a quarantine on the New York City metropolitan area.

“We might not have to do it, but there’s a possibility that sometime today we’ll do a quarantine — short-term, two weeks for New York, probably New Jersey, certain parts of Connecticut,” Trump said March 28.

Later in the day, though, he said he wouldn’t do that. Instead, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a travel advisory “to be administered by the governors, in consultation with the … federal government."

Trump made the announcement that he was backing off after New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) said such a move would amount to a “federal declaration of war” pitting states against the federal government.

Adjourning Congress

Another highly constitutionally questionable idea Trump had this week was to unilaterally adjourn Congress so that he could make recess appointments of officials who have yet to be confirmed.

Congress during such breaks will hold what are known as “pro forma” sessions so that a president can’t make such appointments.

“The current practice of leaving town while conducting phony pro forma sessions is a dereliction of duty that the American people cannot afford during this crisis,” Trump said Wednesday. He added: “If they don’t approve it, then we’re going to go this route, and we’ll probably be challenged in court and we’ll see who wins.”

But the idea has never been attempted in the history of our country, and it’s not clear he can do it. The Constitution says each of the two chambers cannot adjourn for more than three days without the other’s consent, but in cases of disagreement, the president can intervene to adjourn them. There was no disagreement about the current adjournment.

An Easter open date

Since backing off his initial idea of reopening parts of the country by Easter on April 12, Trump has played it off as an optimistic, aspirational goal that just didn’t pan out.

At the time, though, Trump sounded like he thought it was a real possibility — even as health officials downplayed the prospects.

“I think it’s possible. Why isn’t it?” Trump said on Fox News on March 24. “I mean, we have never closed the country before, and we have had some pretty bad flus, and we have had some pretty bad viruses. And I think it’s absolutely possible.”

Labeling regions by risk

Trump floated this on March 26, telling the nation’s governors in a letter, “Our expanded testing capabilities will quickly enable us to publish criteria, developed in close coordination with the nation’s public health officials and scientists, to help classify counties with respect to continued risks posed by the virus.”

Exactly how “quickly” he meant wasn’t clear, but this doesn’t appear to have happened more than three weeks later.

It’s also not clear that it’s even possible yet. Despite Trump’s assurances that testing is going well, White House task force member Anthony S. Fauci said Tuesday, “We have to have something in place that is efficient and that we can rely on, and we’re not there yet.”

Not talking to ‘ungrateful’ governors

Trump at one point indicated he had encouraged Vice President Pence, who leads the task force, not to call governors who he believed were too critical of the federal response — pointing in particular to Democratic Govs. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Jay Inslee of Washington state.

“I say, ‘Mike, don’t call the governor of Washington; you’re wasting your time with him. Don’t call the woman in Michigan. It doesn’t make any difference what happens,' " Trump said March 27. “You know what I say: ‘If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.’ He’s a different type of person; he’ll call quietly anyway.”

Despite Whitmer not relenting in her criticisms, she and Trump spoke a few days later, as the situation in Michigan deteriorated.

Withholding World Health Organization funding

This is a key claim that Trump has followed through on — or at least seems to be trying to. After saying this week that he was going to withdraw U.S. funding and then clarifying that it was merely under consideration, Trump has moved forward with the idea.

But there remain questions about whether he actually can do it. House Democrats have said that only Congress can pull back the funding, since it’s congressionally authorized — a flashback in some ways to the debate over military aid to Ukraine.

“This decision is dangerous, illegal and will be swiftly challenged,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said.

A nonbinding decision issued by the Government Accountability Office in January stated that the withholding of military aid to Ukraine was illegal because a president can’t “substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law.“

Invoking the Defense Production Act

Trump said on March 18 that he had invoked this law, which allows a president to compel certain types of production during a crisis. But then he declined to use it for more than a week, even as he was being urged to do so. He eventually reached deals with General Motors and 3M to make ventilators and masks, respectively.

White House officials later said that the Defense Production Act was being used as leverage to get companies to step up to the plate. In both cases, Trump indicated that he had to invoke it with these specific companies because they weren’t cooperative enough.