Conservative media figures spent years portraying Barack Obama as an “authoritarian,” a “king,” and a “dictator” in response to his executive actions. But many of those same pundits have conveniently gone silent on Donald Trump’s assertion of “total” authority over states. Bret Baier, Fox News’ chief political anchor, elucidated as much in a Tuesday segment on Trump’s comments claiming that he, and only he, would dictate when states reopen businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic. “If President Obama had said those words that you heard from President Trump, that the authority is total with the presidency, conservatives’ heads would’ve exploded across the board,” Baier said. “The Constitution is pretty clear. Constitutional scholars will say that this is not the president flicking on the switch, it’s the governors and the local authorities.” He concluded by explaining that while Trump “can really influence these governors and work with them…as far as the top-down order, by the Constitution, you can’t do that.”
Baier was referring to a particularly deranged White House press briefing on Monday in which Trump declared, “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s got to be.” He went on to puff up his control over states during a national emergency, insisting that “the governors need us one way or the other,” while also acknowledging that he hasn’t “asked anybody” about it “because I don’t have to.” Vice President Mike Pence, a strong proponent of states’ rights during the Obama years, backed Trump’s autocratic framing. “In the long history of this country, the authority of the president of the United States during national emergencies is unquestionably plenary,” he said.
Others in conservative media landed on the same side as Baier, including Fox News’ Brit Hume. “POTUS claims of absolute power in Covid 19 emergency are constitutional nonsense, another of his serial exaggerations,” he tweeted. “The reaction to them are another case of media’s insistent focus on the stuff he says, as if that is more important than what he actually does.” The National Review published two separate items this week criticizing Trump’s authoritative declaration: one by editor Rich Lowry, who called Trump’s assertion “constitutional gibberish and flagrant misrepresentations of our system of government,” and another by Berkeley Law professor John Yoo. “Only the states can impose quarantines, close institutions and businesses, and limit intrastate travel,” the legal scholar wrote. “Democratic governors Gavin Newsom in California, Andrew Cuomo in New York, and J.B. Pritzker [in] Illinois imposed their states’ lockdowns, and only they will decide when the draconian policies will end.”
And yet, despite the relative sanity coursing through some factions of the conservative world, Trump’s biggest cheerleaders remained steadfast. Baier’s colleague Laura Ingraham had nothing but praise for the Monday briefing, saying in the intro to her show that night that she “thoroughly enjoyed today’s coronavirus task force briefing. That was great. It was a tour de force!” (In 2014, Ingraham called Obama’s executive action on immigration a form of “home-grown tyranny” and labelled the then president a “new king.”) Though she spent zero airtime questioning Trump’s wielding of federal power, she did accuse Steve Beshear, Kentucky’s Democratic governor, of using local law enforcement to “harass” Christians attempting to violate social distancing guidelines by holding Easter gatherings—a decision she cast as an unconstitutional “attack on religion.”
Like Ingraham, Fox Business host and informal Trump adviser Lou Dobbs went berserk on Obama following the 2014 executive action that, in part, expanded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, calling Obama’s view “straightforwardly authoritarian.” In response to Trump’s pronouncement this week, however, Dobbs sided with the executive branch and condemned the group of “radical Dem governors” organizing their own timeline to roll back measures intended to keep the virus from spreading. He also accused Democratic state leaders like Cuomo and Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer of using “the Wuhan virus pandemic to attack the president,” adding, “Who the hell is running this show?”