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

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


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.

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“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.


Trump in recent days has repeatedly praised his administration’s efforts to deliver much-needed supplies to states, mobilize the private sector to develop faster tests for the coronavirus and stand up hospitals in hard-hit cities like New York — even as officials begged for additional resources like ventilators. In a briefing on Monday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the worst of the coronavirus had yet to come and that 253 people had died over a single day in the state.

White House aides insist no state will run out of ventilators in the next 72 hours — even as front-line health workers in New York City relay harrowing stories of overwhelmed emergency rooms, people dying alone and dire shortages of protective gear like masks and gowns.

Governors and local leaders, White House aides say, need to demonstrate to the Federal Emergency Management Agency that they have searched their own stockpiles, hospitals and cities first for these supplies, since the administration and FEMA have been inundated by requests. Aides feel like some local leaders are asking for a level of supplies they realistically do not need — a point the president himself has made.

But governors have complained openly that they’re stuck competing against each other, with many preferring a more coordinated national response. Former leaders who have sat in their seats say governors need to hear directions clearly outlined from the federal government to local officials.

“Looking at it from a distance, there is not a clear path as to how governors get medications and support services and where the federal government is actually acting,” said former Republican Gov. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. “They are not communicating it as to how you get the masks, how you get the ventilators. It appears to be communicated in an ad hoc manner rather than a publicly orchestrated manner. Communication has not been great to governors on where the rubber hits the road.”

In a briefing Monday, Trump himself delineated the federal response versus the local one.

“We are letting governors do, in their states, pretty much what they want with our supervision,” he told reporters in the Rose Garden. “And they consult with us in all cases. Some go further than others as you know. I could give you plenty of examples, but I am not going to do that because we never want to be controversial. But some of the governors have taken it further. People are questioning that. Staying at home with respect to what we are talking about doesn’t bother me at all. People should be staying at home. That’s what we want.”

The White House press office said in a statement that it is “outrageous that the media would speculate that the federal-state partnership is about somehow insulating the president. This is about saving lives and the Trump administration has been working with governors and their teams since January on COVID-19 coordination. Every level of government needs to deliver solutions and that is what we are doing in partnership,” deputy press secretary Judd Deere said in a statement.

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Administration officials have grown particularly frustrated with Cuomo, whose televised briefings have drawn considerable attention and who some Democrats have positioned as a rival to Trump. One key sticking point is whether the White House has sent sufficient ventilators and other supplies to New York, which has emerged as an epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak. The Trump administration already has sent the state 4,000 ventilators, and the president said New York has been keeping extra ventilators in a New Jersey warehouse — a charge that Cuomo played down.

“That’s the first I’ve heard the warehouse was in New Jersey, funny way of delivering it to New York,” Cuomo said on CNN on Friday. “The ventilators are in a stockpile. They are not yet deployed because we do not need them yet,” he added, warning that he’s expecting the outbreak to peak in three weeks and that 30,000 total ventilators will be needed.

Three administration officials also argued that Cuomo could’ve moved faster to contain the coronavirus outbreak, noting that he initially dismissed the idea of a shelter-in-place idea for New York City, even as Mayor Bill de Blasio floated it and days after California officials pursued similar measures.

“I don’t think shelter in place really works for one locality,” Cuomo said on March 17, three days before he reversed course and issued a stay-at-home order for the state.

“People love [Cuomo] because he’s yelling at the federal government and sticking it to Trump — without realizing we wouldn’t be in this situation if he had taken it seriously in the first place,” said a senior administration official. “The administration has given him and New York everything they’ve asked for, to the extent it was actually immediately needed — they just haven’t distributed it efficiently.”

Some administration officials also were unhappy with Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, who on Sunday held a press conference to complain that the Food and Drug Administration hadn’t gone far enough with a decision to allow an Ohio company to work on mask sterilization. The issue was ultimately smoothed over — DeWine spoke with Trump, and the FDA quickly issued a second approval — but two officials were irked that the governor elevated what they characterized as a minor miscommunication between the state and the administration.

“It’s a political stunt,” said one official. “You can look strong right now by attacking the federal government.”

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.”

Originally Published Here Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories

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