Trump’s assertion that he has “total authority” to do whatever he wants as president got laughed out of the room by anyone who paid attention in their social studies class in Grade 7. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker rated the claim as Four Pinocchios, the highest rating for lying that they have on their scale.
After declaring independence from Britain and shaking off the yoke of King George III, the Founders of the United States adopted a system of government in which power would be split between the states and a centralized federal government.
The federal government has enumerated powers that it cannot expand, but the state legislatures are free to adopt powers not explicitly forbidden by their constitutions or the U.S. Constitution, according to Robert F. Williams, an expert on state constitutional law at Rutgers University Law School in Camden, N.J.
The 10th Amendment says, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
James Madison wrote in the Federalist 45: “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”
“The President has no formal legal authority to categorically override local or state shelter-in-place orders or to reopen schools and small businesses,” Stephen I. Vladeck, a University of Texas School of Law professor, wrote on Twitter. “No statute delegates to him such power; no constitutional provision invests him with such authority.”
The Supreme Court has reinforced the separate roles of the states and the federal government multiple times. The court ruled in 1992 that the federal government cannot force states to run federal programs, what’s known as the “anti-commandeering doctrine.” In 1997, a court majority ruled that parts of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act violated the 10th Amendment because it was a federal law requiring state and local law enforcement officials to conduct background checks on people attempting to purchase handguns.
Trump said at the briefing that “numerous provisions” in the Constitution gave him power over the states. The White House did not respond when we asked for an explanation.
The two-word answer is “states’ rights,” which has been invoked for good and for evil (maintaining segregation, for example), but it’s a basic tenet of our government. The federal government actually does not have a lot of power over the states, so Trump’s claim is nothing new: it’s unadulterated bullshit and even people who knee-jerk support him know it.
I support the idea that any candidate for president be required to pass a high school civics final exam. That would have saved us a whole lot of this.