As President Donald Trump struggles to navigate a pandemic response amid his sagging reelection prospects, he has stretched the limits of his executive authority in ways his political advisers say will help him come November – while deflecting onto governors and mayors the responsibility for a public health crisis he has failed to contain.
Trump’s deference to local authorities has not extended far beyond Covid-related decisions. On issues Trump and his allies believe will underscore the suburb-friendly messages that have characterized his most recent political messaging – from cracking down on demonstrations to forcing schools to reopen – the White House has pushed a level of federal intervention that has yet to materialize in its coronavirus response.
“I want people to have a certain freedom,” Trump said on “Fox News Sunday” over the past weekend as he explained his refusal to issue a nationwide order that people wear masks in public. “But I leave it up to the governors.”
Three days later, Trump was standing in the East Room announcing a “surge” of federal law enforcement officers to cities and states that did not want the help – underscoring the contradictory ways he has wielded his power during the deepest crisis of his presidency.
The move was an expansion of Operation Legend, a Department of Justice initiative created to draft officers from federal agencies like the FBI, US Marshals Service and Drug Enforcement Administration in the fight against violent crime.
And on Thursday, Trump was hinting he could “do something much stronger than being invited in” if local officials tried to stop the federal agents from operating in their cities. In an interview with Fox News, Trump even suggested he could dispatch as many as 75,000 federal agents.
Some Trump allies had been pushing the White House to take more concrete action to fortify Trump’s “law and order” message, which they believe will play well with the suburban voters who have been fleeing Trump’s camp since 2016.
A campaign adviser said aides and allies to Trump see a political upside in sending in federal forces into Democratic-led cities to quell unruly protests and combat violent crime. On the volatile situation in Oregon, for example, the Trump adviser predicted voters will increasingly point fingers at the governor and mayor of Portland.
“People blame the mayor and governor and (former Vice President Joe) Biden’s inability to stand up to his supporters doing this,” the adviser said.
“Trump is seeing this,” the adviser continued, adding the President is using the opportunity “to talk about law and order.”
But not all Republicans agree that Trump’s push to override the wishes of state and local leaders will help him make inroads with swing voters he needs to win over: college-educated suburban voters who swung to the Democrats in the 2018 midterms.
The crime crackdown is “great for the 40% (of voters) they already have,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican consultant and strategist. “Making that your closing argument when everything is upside down and the campaign is coming apart at the seams means you’ve lost the plot.”
Leading from behind on Covid
Trump’s top-down approach to unrest stands in stark contrast to the unusual deference he has given local authorities during the pandemic, when pressure on him to issue national decrees that could help contain the virus has been high.
As infections first swept the country in March and April, Trump resisted calls to impose a stay-at-home order at the federal level, insisting state and local officials should make the call whether to order their residents to shelter in place.
But by mid-May, Trump was encouraging across-the-board reopenings and had already called on specific states – including Democratic-led Virginia, Minnesota and Michigan – to “liberate” people by lifting restrictions.
Trump’s efforts to encourage mask-wearing have been similarly hands-off. He has himself worn a mask in public on only one occasion, and has repeatedly deferred to local officials to make decisions about whether face coverings are mandatory. Although he floated a potential mask-wearing order for people in federal buildings, the White House did not announce one within the 24-hour timeline he provided.
An administration official downplayed any contradictions in Trump’s use of federal authority in the pandemic and in fighting violent crime. The official argued different states have different needs when it comes to the virus, which is why the President has kept the federal government from imposing orders, but said all federal property needs to be protected.
The administration has used the protection of federal buildings as a legal justification for inviting federal law enforcement into some cities.
Pushing political wins
The President has spent weeks keeping his focus on issues that have little to do with the virus, although he did bring back his personal, primetime press conferences this week as cases continue to climb. At Friday’s daily press briefing, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany started off her appearance by highlighting incidents of violence against police from some protesters – not an update on the fight against the virus.
Trump’s team has reserved the use of federal power for moves they see as political wins. His White House assigned US Marshals to protect national monuments at the height of unrest in the month after the death of George Floyd at the hands of white police officers.
And the administration has aggressively pushed measures encouraging schools to reopen classrooms in the fall despite surging case counts in states across the country, with Trump even threatening to withhold funding from schools that don’t comply – an authority he does not actually have.
Instead, Trump announced on Thursday that the White House would ask Congress for $105 billion in funding for which only schools that reopen could access directly. In districts where the schools remain shuttered, Trump said the money would go to parents, who could then make decisions about alternative arrangements like private school if they wanted.
The move was an acknowledgment by Trump that infection rates have climbed high enough in some places to require continued school closures. But it also set the stage for districts that can’t safely reopen to suffer relative to districts where classrooms have the ability to reopen in the fall.
Trump aides and advisers have characterized the school reopening push as a political win, and one likely to play well with the suburban moms Trump needs to regain. The administration has been scrambling to develop supplemental recommendations that encourage school reopenings within a framework of mitigation efforts.
But no similar incentive involving federal funding has yet been offered to states or cities that comply with other recommendations from the administration, such as mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines.