Trump vs. states and schools: Political pressure despite local control

Trump pressuring governors to follow Florida’s lead and mandate schools reopen

The president pushes for a full reopening of schools in the fall; Kristin Fisher reports from the White House.

Politics is the fine art of claiming credit for success and evading responsibility for failure.

In that sense, Donald Trump, for all his aggressive tactics, is no different than all the traditional politicians who came before him.

Back when the coronavirus was a new and threatening scourge, the president said he had the power to tell the governors what to do about shutting down their states. But he quickly backed off during the mid-April controversy, saying he would defer to the states’ chief executives.

Less than a day later, Trump tweeted “Liberate Michigan!” “Liberate Minnesota!” and “Liberate Virginia!” He was lending his support to protesters demanding that these and other states ease up on their severe restrictions and partial shutdowns.


When the president initially claimed supreme power, he was sending a message that he could force the states not to go too far in choking off the economy. But under severe media criticism, he bowed to the constitutional reality that presidents can’t dictate to the 50 states.

In cold political terms, Trump was letting Andrew Cuomo, Gavin Newsom and the rest own the outcome, in terms of death, illness and joblessness in their states. He used messaging to indicate that he thought some states were going too far, but he wasn’t making the ultimate decisions.

This pattern continued when the president would say things like he wanted the churches opened by Easter, yet obviously lacked the authority to order such an outcome. As such Republican governors as Ron DeSantis in Florida and Greg Abbott in Texas, who were among the last to impose restrictions, became the first to reopen, Trump cheered them on.


Now that Florida and Texas, where Abbott has belatedly issued a mask-wearing order, are breaking records in the latest virus surge, the president, by and large, isn’t being blamed. The governors are, and as the front-line decision-makers, they bear the responsibility.

We are seeing the same pattern on the question of schools. In reality, the president has no power to order the reopening of public schools, which are controlled by mayors, governors and local school boards.

But when Trump announced that he would pressure governors to get their schools open in September, he was appealing to all the frustrated parents who want their kids back in the classroom. (Interestingly, though, an ABC poll last month found about half of parents with kids under 18 were willing to send them back to school and about half were not.)


The president seemed even more forceful when he said he might cut off federal funding to schools that don’t comply–a nuclear threat he is unlikely to carry out.

But again, he’s not directly responsible. If many schools stick with online learning, Trump can argue he did his best. If reopened schools lead to significant infections of students, teachers or staff, Trump can say he wasn’t responsible for how the local districts handled the process.

A president can lead by persuasion, by example, by setting a tone for the country. But given that Congress, state houses and city halls hold significant power, his authority only goes so far. The election may well turn on Trump’s handling of the pandemic. But his aim, like every occupant of the office, is to win the political argument while sidestepping any blame for negative consequences.

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