What more could he do? A look at Trump’s extreme powers

Trump has claimed he can “do whatever I want, as president.” That may not be true, but in a public health emergency, he can do a lot.

President Donald Trump has declared a national emergency to combat the coronavirus — but he could go much further if he wanted.

Federal law gives Trump vast emergency powers in times of pandemic. He could direct the quarantine of people arriving in the United States who exhibit certain symptoms or even if they’re just suspected of having the virus. He could have the federal government detain individuals if their illness might wind up crossing state lines.

And under regulations revised and reissued just before Trump entered office, the government can stop and seize any plane, train or automobile to stymie the spread of contagious disease. Some even interpret the statute as meaning a president could deploy the military to cordon off a city or state.

“The federal public health power is pretty awesome … awe-inspiring in its breadth,” said Wendy Parmet, a law professor at Northeastern University. “But there’s also obviously a lot of danger.”

Indeed, it’s an extraordinary palette of options for a president often mocked as enamored of dictatorial authority and who has claimed, “I have the right to do whatever I want, as president.” And many of these powers remain largely undefined, as they have rarely — if ever — been widely used. It’s a troubling concept for those who are pressing Trump to take more urgent action to combat the coronavirus as it infiltrates American cities, but are wary that he will go too far.

“We can’t divorce this from the context of a president who has shown a willingness to abuse emergency power,” said Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

The conflict was on display Friday as Trump declared a national emergency to unlock funding and bypass regulations to accelerate the lagging development of coronavirus testing options. While even some of Trump’s most ardent opponents praised the move, they were anxious about what might come next.

“As other steps are considered, the president must not overstep his authority or indulge his autocratic tendencies for purposes not truly related to this public health crisis,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.

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