Confronted with a cratering economy that threatens his re-election chances, President Donald Trump is discovering a hard truth: The powers he possesses are limited.
Over the past week, Trump has pushed the idea that the coronavirus pandemic is fading enough to allow Americans to begin resuming normal economic functions. And he’s proclaimed that he has “total” authority over states to compel them to dispense with their public health restrictions in pursuit of that grand “re-opening.”
But over the past 24 hours, Trump’s boasts have largely been revealed to be hollow. Governors have rebuffed his claims as have a smattering of federal Republican lawmakers. Major businesses, such as Major League Baseball, have said they won’t rush to resume their economic functions without sign off from public health authorities. And Democratic lawmakers have continued to balk at Republican assistance that they throw more money into a small business lending program without additional resources for workers and medical equipment.
Faced with such setbacks, Trump has appeared to dial back his power claims and turned more to ceremony instead. During Tuesday's briefing, he said he'd authorize "each individual governor...to implement a re-opening...at a time and in a manner as most appropriate”—without explaining what type of legal authority such authorization would possess. Later during that briefing, he announced the formation of “Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups” to “chart the path forward toward a future of unparalleled American prosperity.”
It was unclear how many of those group’s members had agreed to be part of the administration’s efforts, though some said they’d enthusiastically partake in it. But the composition of the team raised questions about just what type of economic recovery the president was envisioning and just who would actually benefit from it.
Of the 202 member names released by the White House, just 20 were women and just seven were African American, according to a review by The Daily Beast. By contrast, at least 27 members were donors to Trump or committees associated with his re-election efforts.
Those donors have given a combined $41.2 million since 2015 to the Trump campaign, its two joint fundraising committees, the president’s inaugural committee, the Republican National Committee, and America First Action, Trump’s official super PAC, according to a Daily Beast review of Federal Election Commission records.
The list also includes a number of business leaders directly involved in Trump’s political machine. Dallas restaurant magnate Ray Washburne chaired a fundraising committee for Trump’s 2016 campaign. Harold Hamm, the chief executive of oil and gas company Continental Resources, sits on the America First Action board. Vince McMahon, the husband of America First chair Linda McMahon, was also picked. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison hasn’t donated to Trump personally, but he hosted a fundraiser for the president’s reelection campaign in February.
Incidentally, Oracle is one of just three companies with more than one executive on the White House’s coronavirus recovery industry panels. The others are private equity giant Blackstone, whose CEO, Stephen Schwartzman, has donated more than $1.3 million to Trump groups, and Home Depot, whose co-founders Ken Langone and Bernie Marcus have given a combined $1.5 million.
The White House did not return a request for comment.
The president was slated to have four phone calls over the course of Wednesday with various subgroups of his new advisory council. Already, his administration has been charting out bailouts and financial assistance for several of those groups, including the airlines industry, food giants, and hotel and entertainment sectors. But experts warned that beyond those admittedly robust rescue measures, the president’s abilities to spark an economic renaissance was somewhat limited. Many of the practical decisions would rest with the states.
"There's no constitutional clause or statute that would give him such [“total”] power, and he hasn't pointed to any," said David Pozen, a constitutional law professor at Columbia Law School. "So it seems like a lot of bluster."
Inside the White House, there is a similar recognition that their economic arsenal is somewhat finite. Several of Trump’s own lieutenants have attempted to counsel him in recent days on the limitations of his actual authority, reminding him that any federal guidelines he would issue could have major influence on states and businesses’ decisions, but do not automatically supercede governors’ coronavirus-related orders, two senior administration officials say. And even close Republican allies of the president—while sharing his desire to have economic considerations become as, if not more, prominent than public health ones—have cautioned that the ultimate decision doesn’t rest at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
In a Tuesday morning tweet, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) didn’t mention Trump by name, but sided with the authority of governors during the health crisis. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) made much the same point as did Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, who said on Monday afternoon that the president was going to work with governors because he “knows what the authorities of the states are and what the governors are and what the President of the United States are.”
A similar situation played out last month. As the president publicly championed re-opening the country on an Easter timeline, some GOP governors were quick to dismiss the idea and simply moved on. Trump, instead, leaned on former foes for help in keeping the economy afloat. The Federal Reserve, run by a chairman the president has chastised repeatedly and publicly, has taken extraordinary monetary action to help keep the economy afloat. And Democrats in Congress, whom Trump has mocked and ridiculed, have crafted massive economic measures that have upped the stimulus requests beyond what the president has proposed.
With the president once more trying to compel states to help him reignite the economy, some small government conservatives say they’re comfortable with the new balance of powers.
“I’m hoping we are rediscovering federalism. My conversation with the White House is this will be implemented by the localities, managed by the states, and overseen by the federal government,” said Adam Brandon, the president of conservative grassroots group FreedomWorks. “I think if a state decides it is going to make you stay in and lock down 100 percent, that’s up to the state. Now there are federal things, like airports and highways, where the president has more authority. But ultimately, stay at home orders can not come from the feds.”
—with additional reporting by Asawin Suebsaeng and Jackie Kucinich