President Trump has intermittently gone to war with public-health experts, including those in his own administration, in an attempt to restart the economy fast enough to help him win reelection. His biggest obstacle — next to his administration’s inability to produce enough testing to allow local officials to safely reopen — is that he lacks the legal authority to force states and cities to open up. After first claiming total authority over the governors, Trump is looking for ways to gain leverage to bring them to heel. He can whip up protests, and he can withhold aid from the states and cities.
And now he is pulling out a new weapon: Attorney General William Barr.
In his last interview two weeks ago, Barr expressed several Trumpy views about the coronavirus, complaining that the news media had launched a “jihad” against the “promising” drug hydroxychloroquine, and that “after the 30-day period, we have to find a way of allowing businesses to adapt to the situation and figure out best how they can get started.”
In a new interview with right-wing talk-show host Hugh Hewitt, Barr threatens to throw the DOJ’s weight behind businesses to sue states and cities that fail to open up quickly enough. Barr’s premise is that Trump, as always, has taken a wise and measured course: “I think the president’s plan for getting the country back to work is really a very commonsensical approach that is based on really assessing the status of the virus in each state and each locality, and then gradually pulling back on restrictions.” (Trump’s “commonsensical” plan has included all-cap demands to LIBERATE various states that his own administration’s guidelines have deemed not yet ready to reopen.)
Barr proceeded to explain that any governors who fail to define “common sense” the same way as Trump may feel the wrath of Barr’s Department of Justice:
I think the President’s guidance has been, as I say, superb and very commonsensical, and I think a lot of the governors are following that. And you know, to the extent that governors don’t and impinge on either civil rights or on the national commerce, our common market that we have here, then we’ll have to address that.
And if we think it’s, you know, justified, we would take a position. That’s what we’re doing now. We, you know, we’re looking carefully at a number of these rules that are being put into place. And if we think one goes too far, we initially try to jawbone the governors into rolling them back or adjusting them. And if they’re not and people bring lawsuits, we file a statement of interest and side with the plaintiffs. And at this stage, and we’re at sort of a sensitive stage where we’re really transitioning to starting a process of trying to get the nation back up and running, you know, I think that’s the best approach. As lawsuits develop, as specific cases emerge in the states, we’ll take a look at them.
Now, normally, Republicans tend to favor state and local authority over the heavy hand of the federal government. But the difference in this case is
that Republicans control the federal government some legal principle Barr hasn’t explained yet.
This threat might sound a little heavy-handed and partisan, but don’t worry. Barr is a stickler for the Constitution and the rule of law, and would never work for a president who didn’t share his passion for these timeless principles, as evidenced by this exchange:
Hewitt: Has the President done anything, anything at all to give rise in you to a concern that he does not respect the Constitution or intend to abide by its separation of powers?
Barr: Never. Never at all.