President Trump, having apparently exhausted his patience with public-health officials, has announced his plans to quickly reopen public spaces closed to the coronavirus. “I gave it two weeks,” he declared. Trump has tentatively marked April 2 as the day to resume mass gatherings. “I think Easter Sunday, and you will have packed churches all over our country,” he announced on Fox News. “I think it would be a beautiful time and it’s just about the timeline that I think is right,” apparently failing to grasp either the actual timeline of the coronavirus’s spread — which may be overwhelming hospitals across the country by that point — and the public-health impact of bringing together large crowds into packed buildings during a pandemic.
The question, though, is exactly what Trump can do to reopen the country. He can announce a date. But Trump didn’t close anything down to begin with. The closings have been directed by state and local officials. They will retain the legal authority to keep schools, restaurants, and other gathering places shuttered.
Yet his lack of a legal authority doesn’t make Trump helpless. He has several tools he could use if governors and mayors fail to come around to Arthur Laffer’s public-health theories:
1) Refuse to back more federal aid. States are only able to sustain their closures because they have the federal government as a fiscal backstop. States have to balance their budgets, which makes them helpless during a sharp contraction, when tax revenue plummets and social spending needs rise. The federal government, which can borrow, is needed to keep them operational. If Trump withdraws his support for fiscal stimulus to support the states, they will lose their ability to maintain public-health shutdowns.
2) Call on his followers to ignore the bans. Trump can’t open the schools, but he can get his supporters to flout the bans on aggregating in groups. The social distancing requirements depend on voluntary compliance. If Fox News tells its audience to listen to the president rather than their governors, many of them will.
3) Punish the states. Trump has always played favorites between red and blue states, showering those that supported him with attention and cash, and denying aid to blue states that anger him.
Trump has continued to openly state that his level of cooperation depends on governors showering him with praise. “Usually we’ll have 50 governors that will call it the same time,” he said on Fox News today. “I think we are doing very well. But it’s a two-way street. They have to treat us well, also. They can’t say, ‘Oh, gee, we should get this, we should get that.’”
States are dependent on help from FEMA, the military, and other arms of the federal government. New York’s Andrew Cuomo is pleading for Washington to send him ventilators, which he will need within days, or New Yorkers will begin dying for lack of treatment. As the coronavirus spreads, more and more governors will find themselves in this position. Trump has made clear his willingness to use government spending as a political weapon. He could bring recalcitrant governors to heel by withholding aid. What are they gonna do, impeach him?
Of course, governors and mayors can fight back, too. They can stop their kid-glove treatment and denounce the incompetence of Trump’s response. Business owners who don’t want to open up during a pandemic with hospitals breaking down can refuse to reopen; workers can call strikes, perhaps even a general strike. Public-health officials can speak out against Trump’s “orders.”
Depending on the severity of the conditions, a premature Trump order to reopen would set off a brutal fight. The outcome would be difficult to predict. But Trump would not be totally helpless.