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  • Antron Johnson

‘A Darwinian approach to federalism’: States confront new reality under Trump

State governors are getting more power from Trump, while fearing they lack the federal tools needed to fight the coronavirus crisis.

The Trump White House is doubling down on a strategy to govern the coronavirus pandemic: pushing authority and responsibility for the response onto the states.

As the virus spreads across the U.S. and new hot spots emerge in states such as Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan and Texas, senior administration aides have privately argued the coronavirus response is a test of local politicians’ leadership and resourcefulness — with the White House acting as a backstop for the front-line state-by-state efforts.


The strategy is built on the idea that state leaders have the greatest familiarity with residents, hospitals and public health departments, as President Donald Trump and his allies argue. But it has a political subtext: The approach could give the White House an opportunity to extract Trump from future criticism as the virus spreads throughout the nation and threatens to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans. It also could backfire among Americans who prefer to see a firm national response to a disease that does not respect state borders.

“That is a Darwinian approach to federalism; that is states’ rights taken to a deadly extreme,” said Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor who served for eight years on the Homeland Security Task Force of the National Governors Association. “The better read of federalism is that the states and federal government work together when the U.S. is attacked, whether it is by imperial Japan or a pandemic.”

“For all of the good work I see governors doing, only the president has the intelligence and resources to tip the shores, the power to invoke the Defense Production Act and control over whether there are adequate stockpiles for the threats of our day and the FEMA reserves,” O’Malley added.

The coronavirus crisis, in just a few weeks, has injected unpredictability into an election year that Trump and his team are still in the early stages of processing. The president’s advisers are — as would be expected in any administration — keeping an eye on how policy will be seen through a campaign lens as they try to best position the president to secure another term seven months from now.


Meanwhile, the coronavirus is rapidly spreading in states that Trump carried in the 2016 election — like Florida, Louisiana and Texas — but Trump has held his fire on governors of those states, even when they didn’t move aggressively to contain the virus.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a staunch Trump ally, only issued a stay-at-home order on Monday after days of complaints by state Democrats and public health experts. There are already more than 5,000 cases of coronavirus in Florida, and epidemiologists have worried that DeSantis' decision to keep open his state's beaches and other public places will lead to an explosion of new infections.


While the president has publicly clashed with the governors of Washington, Michigan and New York, Vice President Mike Pence has had a steadier relationship with governors across the country. Once a week, Pence holds a teleconference with governors that Trump lately has also been attending. The White House touts that it has also held over 90 briefings since January with 45,000 state, local and tribal leaders.


On Monday’s call, Pence asked leaders in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey to talk about their community mitigation efforts, and he highlighted the work Democratic Gov. Jared Polis is doing with the Colorado national guard on community-based testing sites, said an administration official.


Trump’s political advisers see little risk in the president criticizing individual governors, or saying some leaders needed to be more appreciative as he did during a White House briefing on Friday. “You know what I say? If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call,” Trump said about communicating with governors before adding that Pence is “a different type of person. He’ll call quietly anyway. OK? But he’s done a great job. He should be appreciated for the job he’s done.”


What will matter far more to Trump’s reelection prospects will be the way Americans perceive the recovery from the pandemic from both a health and economic standpoint, say his political advisers.


“People will care if they had a family member get sick or die, or if they or a family member lost their job or were set back in terms of their income,” said one Republican close to the White House. “No one will remember that Trump and Democratic Gov. [Gretchen] Whitmer of Michigan got into a fight.”

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