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Does Trump have ‘absolute’ power to end social distancing? ‘No,’ say experts

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by Paul HANDLEY / Agence France-Presse

President Donald Trump sparked controversy when he claimed Monday he had the “absolute” power to force state governors and big-city mayors to lift quarantine and distancing policies.

Determined to quickly reopen the US economy when the coronavirus threat eases, Trump warned governors and local leaders he would step in, if they insist on maintaining their own rules to prevent the spread of the virus beyond what he believes is necessary.

“They can’t do anything without the approval of the president,” Trump said.

“When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total,” he said. “I would rather work with the states… But I have the absolute right to do it if I want to.”

Can Trump force the end of quarantine policies when local leaders say it’s not yet safe to do so?

In a word, no.

The US Constitution’s 10th amendment says that powers not specifically granted to the federal government or the president are reserved for the 50 states.

That has sparked many high court battles over the years on which side can do what, most recently in Trump’s efforts to force states to crack down on illegal immigrants.

Nothing in US law says the president or federal government can force a state to lift its own sequestration, quarantine and distancing policies, say legal experts.

In a federal emergency, which Trump declared on March 13, the president’s powers are expanded. He can then unilaterally mobilize federal funds, deploy troops for law enforcement and order businesses to support requirements of the emergency.

The federal government — specifically the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — also has the power to declare quarantines in states and localities to battle epidemics, under the 1944 Public Health Service Act.

But in the COVID-19 emergency, it has been the governors and mayors across the country who have been the main drivers of distancing policies, issuing their own orders to close schools and businesses, implementing local curfews and requiring the wearing of masks.

“The president vastly overstates his constitutional authority here and indeed he cannot force governors to abandon protective health measures by presidential edict,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

Trump’s main leverage then is to influence the disbursement of federal funds and other resources to the states, favoring those who back him and denying those he doesn’t like.

“The president may state his preference, or even use some incentives to persuade governors to follow his lead, but that’s about all he has at his disposal,” Rozell said. (AFP)

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