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In our opinion: Trump says he has total authority, but America is at its best when federalism works

President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House, Monday, April 13, 2020, in Washington.
Associated Press

James Madison must have been rolling over in his grave during Monday’s White House press briefing.

“When somebody’s the president of the United States,” President Donald Trump announced, “the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s got to be.”

He also made clear his intent on Twitter: “... Some in the Fake News Media are saying that it is the Governors decision to open up the states, not that of the President of the United States & the Federal Government. Let it be fully understood that this is incorrect.”

Actually, America is at its best when federalism works — when local and state authorities govern based on the needs of their region and Washington assumes the specific roles only it can play.

It’s a thorny relationship by design, and one that has produced some of the country’s greatest conflicts. But it’s also a partnership capable of synergy — especially in times of crisis — making the present moment an opportunity for states and the White House to coordinate instead of criticize and make sure the American people are at the forefront of decisions to ease life back into society.

Setting aside dubious legal arguments favoring the authority the president purports to have, the important principle should be that of leadership. Unfortunately, confusing messages over the past month have muddied the public’s perception of who’s in charge.

It wasn’t until late March that the White House and governors struck a similar chord in reacting to the pandemic, as Deseret News’ Washington correspondent Matt Brown reports. President Trump initially put the onus on states to act on behalf of their residents. Even as recently as Sunday, Trump tweeted, “get your states testing programs & apparatus perfected. Be ready, big things are happening. No excuses!”

National media outlets also have contributed to the problem by creating more confusion than clarity. First they uncorked criticism of President Trump for not unilaterally shutting down the country early on. Now they hammer him for declaring he single-handedly has the power to open the country up. Such duplicity is harmful.

None of which makes Monday’s declaration attractive for Americans who crave consistency and confidence. They deserve certainty that leaders are looking out for their best interests. That most likely occurs when state authorities give clear direction and Washington offers its resources.

Not all governors, though, have been shining examples of leadership. Missteps in Florida’s response, for instance, including keeping beaches open while spring breakers partied, have likely affected the spread of COVID-19 in the region. And in an election year, Brown reports, some governors on the ballot may be looking to calm political dustups rather than make difficult decisions for their state.

The American people should never suffer in exchange for political advantage or media ratings, whether that’s in the White House and governor’s mansions across the country or on the internet and airwaves.

How the economy should best reopen is fraught with unknowns, but prudence suggests a measured roll out is better than an explosive shock. Coordinating that should be the work of both state and federal leaders as they harmonize their roles and responsibilities on behalf of the country’s citizens. Getting that balance right is the legacy of America’s founders and should be the work of its leaders today.