So Governor Andrew Cuomo took offense to comments made by President Trump during the April 13 Coronavirus Task Force briefing. Trump made some less than eloquent comments regarding the powers of the Executive Branch in managing the public health response. So Cuomo spent some time whining to Chris Hayes about them.
The Problematic Sound Bite
The clip of President Trump saying he has “total authority” out of context will play on endless loop beginning in September. However, in the same whining interview, Cuomo hit the nail on the head. This comment runs directly counter to the way the President and the Task Force have managed this response for the last several months. Vice President Mike Pence has spent countless briefings trying to explain to the media the COVID-19 response was “locally driven, state managed and federally supported”.
Similarly, President Trump was endlessly hammered by the White House press gaggle for not forcing Republican governors to issue state wide stay at home orders. His response was repeatedly citing the principles of federalism and praising individual governors for managing the response in the way they saw fit. In the same press conference where he cited “total authority”, he declined to criticize the Napoleonic orders issued by Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Even though her ridiculous imposition of fines and designation of what stores can or can’t sell was very easy to bash.
For Me But Not For Thee
In the interview Cuomo asserts he is in charge of the response for New York. The end of the interview explains what he sees as his authority over local governments in the state:
The Governor is not wrong. But neither is President Trump. The President has broad powers in governing the response during a National Emergency. Let’s look at it this way. Much like the 22 year old that is still living at home, they may pay for their own car insurance and cell phone. Yet they still benefit from the air conditioning in the summer. They will also have no problem rummaging through the food you put in the fridge to fill their hollow leg.
Here is a short list of the the items Governor Cuomo had no control over in his state’s response to the virus:
- Engaging the Army Corps of Engineers to construct temporary hospitals
- Sending the USS Comfort to New York harbor
- Authorizing these facilities to care for COVID-19 patients
- Sending members of the Public Health Corps to set up testing sites
- Utilize military aircraft to fly all over the world to pick up supplies and drop them in New York
- Send ventilators from the strategic stores to New York City hospitals
- Authorize compassionate care use of drugs to give to patients
- Send millions of doses of medications authorized for use from strategic stockpiles
- Send military and retired military medical personnel to relieve the state’s hospital workers
- Activate the National Guard to move supplies and equipment to facilities that require them
And that is a short list.
Still Rummaging Through The Fridge
The Governor is still yammering about the need to have the federal government supply testing materials. This is patently ridiculous. The federal government is not a purchasing agent for the states. The testing machines, kits and supplies are all available through private industry. Hospitals, health care providers and public health departments need to activate their supply chain organizations to start placing orders. Dr. Birx has already said federal agencies are mobilizing to identify the laboratory machine inventory required to run the tests nationwide. I am almost sure state and local health departments would be perfectly capable of doing this inventory. But they aren’t being directed to do so.
The lack of planning demonstrated by the state of New York that resulted in a high degree of dependance on the President to authorize needed resources. So, maybe Governor Cuomo should just hush. Perhaps he could have said, “Much like I govern emergency orders at the state level, the President has a great deal of authority of emergency response at the federal level. I would guess this is what he is referring to”
The Part The Media Ignored
Especially since Vice President Mike Pence had clarified the president’s comments shortly after they were made following a pointed request for clarification from a reporter:
PENCE: I support the President’s leadership under the Emergency Declaration he signed. We’re standing before you today for the first time in American history when all 50 states have issued emergency declarations. And the territories. This is an unprecedented time in the life of the nation. And as the President has reflected and our health experts will continue to reflect, because the American people have heeded the President’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America, because state governors have taken those and implemented them. Even in states where there is not a significant outbreak. And implemented additional measures as we provided them with data about cases and best practices, we’re making real progress as a country.
REPORTER: Is the President’s power circumscribed as total?
PENCE: Well, make no mistake about it. In the long history of this country, the authority of the President of the United Sates during national emergencies is unquestionably plenary. You can look through times of war and other national emergencies. And as the President said we will be happy to brief it for you.”
There is no question about it. The President’s comments regarding the authority of his office were muddy, ill-advised, poorly explained and unhelpful. Long term they will certainly be used against him. But put in context, the discussion was about the reopening of the economy. The President had the authority to direct the national health agencies to develop the initial guidelines that led to the shut down of all but the essential economy and many other community functions. The governors implemented them and in some cases did so in reactionary and ridiculous ways.
As Vice-President Pence indicated, the President has the authority to direct those same agencies to produce new guidelines for every state and territory to effectively manage the crisis. It will be up to Governors and local leaders to implement them based on data and local conditions.
The plain truth is the entire response to the virus is a series of interdependencies. The President, by invoking certain statutes, can govern the use of assets in private industry. They may also stop shipments from domestic producers of needed goods other nations. Regulations that impede the repose can be slashed., Powers can also be given agency leaders to speed responses and establish new blueprints. One example is public/private partnership in testing. He can also direct national agencies and the military in their activities during the response. And he can unlock billions in funding without having to go through the petulant and political House Democrats in Congress.
The states can request the resources unleashed at the federal level and direct their use within the state level response. They can also add additional resources and place additional guidelines on the citizens of their states.
Just Calm Down
So, the 22 year old still living at home needs to tell you if they are not going to come home on a Saturday night. You have no parental authority to make them do it, but you sure provide a lot of support that if withdrawn could make their lives miserable. Or at least make their stomach growl.
Likewise, Governor Cuomo might want to listen if the CDC tells him, “Hey, we get the City is still a big risk, but we have a plan to ease up safely in Skaneateles, Saratoga and Schoharie.” He might also want to step up and make sure his own resources are directed at procuring the materials for testing that will be required for surveillance and contact tracing in communities that can focus on containment as the emerge.
Can We Remember Recent History?
Most of all, everyone might just want to calm down and remember the following. The federal and state governments have been working together cooperatively. No state has gone without the support required to respond to the needs of their citizens during the pandemic. We have actually seen states step up and move resources to other states when it became evident they could. Private industry has rushed to support the national response. And new methods for responding in an agile way, such as the national ventilator inventory project announced yesterday, are being built for future use.
I long to live in a world where we have a corporate media that focuses on both the accomplishments and the challenges we face as a nation. Sadly, if the pandemic has taught me anything, this is not something that will happen any time soon. It is all about a sound bite that can be used to keep you scared and angry. Trump the authoritarian was a garbage narrative to start if you have been watching the daily briefings. But clearly, if they have the sound bite, they’ll create an entire cycle around it.