Back on April 13, President Trump made an astonishing declaration, even for him, and he's made some doozies. You may recall that this was the briefing at which he showed a strange campaign-style video featuring compliments from Democratic officials, which had clearly been inspired by a very similar compilation shown the night before on Sean Hannity's Fox News show, already a de facto Trump celebration hour.
It was also the appearance in which he repeatedly made the claim that he had "total authority" to reopen the government and blathered on about how he'd saved hundreds of thousands of lives when he supposedly "closed" the country in the first place.
Kaitlan Collins of CNN asked him a question I think we all were wondering at that point:
You said, "When someone is president of the United States, their authority is total." That is not true. Who — who told you that?
Trump didn't answer. The next day Trump announced that it would be up to the governors to decide when they wanted to open up. (He said he would "authorize" them to do it, even though they don't need any such authorization.) Various media outlets have reported that he was convinced to do this because it would be better for his electoral prospects if he can blame the governors for whatever goes wrong with the reopening.
Trump has often touted his alleged total authority, saying on one famous occasion that Article II of the Constitution gives him "the right to do whatever I want as president." But when Collins asked him that question I was pretty sure I knew who told him that. The most powerful legal authority in the administration who believes that the president has almost unlimited power is Attorney General William Barr.
Barr made an appearance on Laura Ingraham's show not long ago — I wrote about it here — and made some comments at the time which give us a clue about how he sees the president's authority in this circumstance. Ingraham went on a tear about forcing churches to close during the pandemic and Barr correctly pointed out that unless the state was singling out religious institutions for closure while allowing other large gatherings, the First Amendment had not been violated.
What came next in that conversation reveals Barr's real agenda, however, and possibly that of all the other schemers in the administration. At the time of the interview, the first rumblings from the astroturf groups in various swing states with Democratic governors were starting to be heard. Barr was on it already:
I think we have to be very careful to make sure this is — you know, that the draconian measures that are being adopted are fully justified, and there are not alternative ways of protecting people. And I think, you know, when this — when this period of time is — at the end of April expires, I think we have to allow people to adapt more than we have and not just tell people to go home and hide under the bed, but allow them to use other ways — social distancing and other means — to protect themselves.
Since then we've had heavily-covered small protests like this around the country demanding that governors rescind their stay-at-home orders:
At least they were wearing masks.
On Tuesday, Barr appeared on Hugh Hewitt's show and made clear that if anyone thought the top law enforcement officer in the country might find armed protests against public health measures to be a threat to public order, they needed to think again. He reiterated his belief that the states have imposed unnecessary and draconian measures and implicitly backed the protests, calling stay-at-home orders "disturbingly close to house arrest."
The legal issues he believes are salient are civil liberties and something vague to do with interstate commerce. If I had to guess, I'd suggest that Barr intends to argue that states that are not open for business are somehow impinging on other states' rights to conduct business across state lines. Either that, or he anticipates that there really will be checkpoints on the highways as infected people from Trump states decide to descend upon others. In any case, he announced that the federal government will join individual lawsuits to force states to open, whatever the task force guidelines endorsed by Vice President Pence may say.
According to the Detroit News, Barr has the support of the man who was widely considered the worst attorney general of recent history, Reagan administration stalwart Ed Meese. Apparently, Meese and some other right-wing extremists wrote to Barr earlier this week, accusing the states of "rampant abuses of constitutional rights and civil liberties" and exhorting him "to undertake an immediate review of all the orders that have been issued by the states and local governments across the nation."
Is it possible that these people are unaware that these measures are being taken all over the world to contain a deadly virus? Do they think these governors are doing this out of some twisted ideological desire to destroy their constituents' livelihoods and their states' tax bases? Apparently so.
It's hard to know how widely Barr plans to use Department of Justice levers to force Americans to risk their lives for Donald Trump. But he is definitely figuring out ways to help make that happen.
For a man without a medical degree or any other relevant expertise, he seems confident that he knows more than the public health experts about how to deal with a deadly pandemic:
You can't just keep on feeding the patient chemotherapy and say well, we're killing the cancer, because we were getting to the point where we're killing the patient. And now is the time that we have to start looking ahead and adjusting to more targeted therapies.
If there is a worse analogy for what we're going through, I haven't heard it.
At the moment, social distancing is the only way we have of mitigating the spread of the disease and killing tens of thousands of people unnecessarily. There is no "targeted therapy," metaphorical or otherwise. But Trump and Barr and the rest of the nihilist right are telling Americans that they should ignore all the scientific expertise and go out and play Russian roulette in workplaces, malls and restaurants, all in the name of freedom and liberty.
It's true that Barr hasn't said that Trump can simply issue an "order" forcing these state governments to go against all the pubic health recommendations. But he has almost certainly told him that the Department of Justice can figure out how to get the job done. There is more than one way to exercise "total authority."