It seems Donald Trump is under heavy scrutiny from a lot of the media and his political opponents for failing to appropriately respond to Covid-19. My question is: what more could he have done that he didn't/has not yet done, under the limits imposed in the Constitution and/or by various statutes passed by Congress to respond to the pandemic?

It's my understanding under Federalism that the President's ability to influence the course of the pandemic is limited, and many of the things that people want him to do are outside his actual powers.

I'd like to know if there are other things he could be doing (not saying) within his authority under the Constitution and other statutes passed by Congress that he's currently not.

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    Comments deleted. Please don't use comments to debate the question matter. If you would like to answer, post a real answer. If you would like to discuss, please use the chat function. Please try to limit these comments to suggesting improvements to the question.
    – JJJ
    Oct 8, 2020 at 3:29
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    Does this question allow for what he shouldn’t have done answers? (E.g. discredit Fauci; post “Liberate Michigan” tweets; have crowed campaign rallies; defund WHO; promote unproven treatments.) Oct 10, 2020 at 10:41

6 Answers 6


Here's a non-exhaustive list:

  1. Trump could've warned the American people about the dangers of the virus earlier, instead of downplaying the threat and constantly telling citizens it will "go away". Although to be fair, few countries took the danger seriously up until late February.
  2. His administration initially told people not to wear masks and only changed their guidance on April 3rd. You could argue that it was Fauci or the Surgeon General or the WHO claiming that masks aren't helping, but ultimately the Trump administration didn't have to listen to any of them. Masks were mandated by China in Wuhan back in January, no reason why this very same measure couldn't have been copied in America as well.
  3. Trump could've introduced an early mask mandate in indoor spaces controlled by the Federal government: commercial airlines and airports, Federal prisons, National Parks, border crossings, government offices, etc.
  4. The President himself was extremely reluctant to wear a mask in public. His first public appearance in a mask was on July 12th - 3 months after the CDC changed their guidance on mask usage. And he mocked Joe Biden for wearing one.
  5. The CDC continuously stalled early attempts to develop a COVID test, preventing private labs from administering such tests up until February 29th. The FDA is still stalling novel test developments, such as self-administered COVID tests that could've massively increased the amount of testing in the country.
  6. They didn't suspend price gouging laws to encourage the free market to try and solve the initial shortages of masks, test reagents, PPE and other pandemic essentials. Labs are still struggling to obtain enough reagents, partially due to the effect of these laws.
  7. The Federal government initially attempted to intercept all PPE shipments, forcing states to run semi-clandestine deals to purchase their own supply, while also failing to distribute enough PPE from their own central supply. As a result doctors didn't have enough protection during the crucial months of March and April. Hospitals were so desperate that they've asked local citizens to donate their own respirators.
  8. They didn't prepare for the possibility of a pandemic by stocking up enough PPE essentials in advance, although this was the case in most countries. The national stockpile ran out sometime in late March.
  9. The President didn't restrict inter-state travel, even though he had the authority to do so. This would've been of questionable effectiveness for overland travel in mainland US, but it would've reduced travel by law abiding citizens and prevented most air travel from taking place.
  10. The ban on foreign travel wasn't comprehensive - while some countries went as far as to fully shut down their airports back in March, the US never restricted travel from regions other than China, the EU or Brazil. For example, one can currently travel from Israel to the US without any restrictions, even though it currently has the highest COVID rate per capita in the world.
  11. While his administration was very supportive of vaccine development, they failed to approve a vaccine challenge trial that could've arguably accelerated the development of a vaccine by a few weeks at the very least.
  12. His administration did little to develop a national contact tracing program, forcing each state to create their own system.
  13. He failed to reach a consensus with the Democrats on passing a second COVID relief bill, although that's not entirely under his control. Likewise he's currently stalling a bailout for states that are suffering financial difficulties, which in turn forces them to reopen earlier than they would've preferred. This doesn't affect the course of the pandemic directly, but the lack of financial support forces citizens to take more risks than they otherwise would, which in turn increases viral transmission rates.

How important is public policy in fighting the pandemic? Some Western countries achieved a better outcome:

  • United States: 654 deaths/million
  • Canada (closest neighbor): 252 deaths/million
  • Germany (dense country, relied on contact tracing): 151 deaths/million
  • New Zealand (relied on a hardcore lockdown plus contact tracing): 5 deaths/million

We can also make a comparison between two neighboring states:

  • Washington, US: 286 deaths/million
  • British Columbia, Canada: 50 deaths/million

Population centers in both WA and BC have similar weather, similar racial profiles, similar density and similar incomes. Both avoided a major lockdown, with travel being relatively unconstrained within the regions even at the peak of the pandemic. However the results are very much in favor of Canada, showing that the federal government can indeed affect the outcome.

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    The third point is related to the others: the recommendation to not wear masks was to save them for medical personnel, due to the shortage. If Trump had ensured an adequate supply of PPE, we wouldn't have needed to ration masks as much. Oct 8, 2020 at 23:56
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    @Acccumulation it was a stupid idea, possibly one of the most idiotic ideas in this whole pandemic. It seeded a massive anti-mask movement throughout the world and didn't help with the shortages. It was obvious to be an insane line of thinking to anyone who believes in germ theory. Smarter countries like China simply asked citizens to make homemade masks from a piece of cloth or a paper towel. Oct 9, 2020 at 0:00
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    WRT your point #8, it should be noted that the current administration repeatedly blames the previous one for depleting national stockpiles, even though they had three years to replenish them.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 12, 2020 at 2:13
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    @jamesqf Saying "take this proven Malaria drug because it might treat Covid" is not the same as "drink fish tank cleaner because it has a word on the label". Stupid people gonna be stupid.
    – Ertai87
    Oct 13, 2020 at 15:08
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    @Ertai87: Yes, that has been amply demonstrated. Unfortunately, when you have one stupid person in a position of prominence, other stupid people tend to pay attention to the stupid things that person says.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 14, 2020 at 4:15

All of the President's authority in this regard flows from statutes enacted by Congress giving him such authority. Myriad statutes are potentially implicated, so there isn't a simple answer to what statutory authority is present.

The U.S. Constitution does not provide an independent source of authority for the President in this situation.

Congress potentially has great authority in the area (under its interstate commerce regulation power, most notably), but has not always exercised it.

  • Thanks! I did not understand that. I'll update the question to include this.
    – Ertai87
    Oct 5, 2020 at 19:14
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    @Ertai87 but authority delegated to the president by congress is indeed authority "under the constitution" (to quote the original title of this question). The president derives the power from the constitution indirectly, by way of congress's having delegated it to him. So it's not wrong to ask about authority "under the constitution," but it's also helpful to point out that the ultimate power lies with congress (within the constitution's meaning of congress's legislative power, which always implies that it is subject to the process specified for enacting laws).
    – phoog
    Oct 5, 2020 at 20:08

A President can:

  • lead by example.
  • listen to expert advice
  • coordinate response by the states / apply the "bully pulpit" to laggards that are underperforming
  • mobilize Federal departments, something on which he has authority
  • release Federal emergency stockpiles
  • display empathy and unify the nation
  • assist in passing emergency funding legislation
  • close/limit international borders
  • coordinate with other countries/relevant international bodies

I could link to resources supporting my opinion of where President Trump stands on each and every one of those, but I am equally sure almost everyone here already has made up their mind one way or the other.

Notwithstanding formal powers given to a political position, the quality of leadership alone frequently can make a big difference in national crises. The POTUS has plenty of power to assist states, none of the above list obviously infringe on States Rights and some are expressly reserved for the POTUS.

Whether or not you think he did the best he could is really for you to decide, but the notion that POTUS position gives little leverage is flawed, IHMO.

FWIW, here's a tangential read on what can happen when covid gets politicized in a federal system (Spain). It is unfortunately paywalled, though I thought The Economist's covid coverage was all-access. Gist is that squabbling levels of government can worsen things, which is why reaching out is important.

  • The last paragraph ("...for you to decide") seems irrelevant. One could tag a similar comment onto most any answer, but it would never be useful.
    – agc
    Oct 11, 2020 at 6:04
  • @agc I disagree. The question was about whether POTUS had power to influence and shape the response, not whether he did a good job. Which is why I stepped back from giving an opinion on his performance. I've added a bit to clarify that. Oct 12, 2020 at 2:01
  • (For last para) similar example can be given with Brazil. Feb 24, 2021 at 20:20

The president's role in any crisis situation is to create a calm, coherent, and (hopefully) effective national plan for addressing the crisis. This does not involve the President exercising executive power, exactly. It means that the president must exercise influence to create both a public attitude towards the crisis and a public framework under which the crisis can be addressed. This generally involves actions and behaviors like the following:

  1. Creating a plan for addressing the crisis, and informing citizens what they, individually, can and must do to help that plan succeed
  2. Informing citizens of the extent and nature of the crisis, in a way that gives them moral strength and a sense of security (that 'bucks them up', as it were)
  3. Authorize, release, and/or generate emergency funds, resources, and personnel needed to deal with the crisis
  4. Work with Congress to pass bills that will create incentives for businesses to address the problem, and to provide aid to those who find themselves (through no fault of their own) debilitated by the crisis

Trump was aware early on of the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic (as we learned from Woodward's recordings), and to the extent that he developed a national plan, that plan was (essentially) to do nothing at all. To be fair to Trump, that is the common historical approach: in the US and elsewhere leaders have usually dealt with pandemics by imposing loose quarantines and closing borders, but have left everyday life to continue as usual in the expectation that the disease would eventually burn itself out. As a national plan this is rough and harsh; it anticipates and condones a high death-count as an unavoidable necessity, and seeks to preserve as much of the continuity of everyday life as possible for the duration. We may think of such a plan as morally objectionable and callous, but it has lots of precedent, so we cannot criticize Trump specifically on point #1.

However, on point #2 Trump failed miserably. Speaking historically again, political leaders have usually addressed epidemics with a rallying cry, in effect telling people directly that a deadly disease is among them, that many of their near and dear are at risk, and that we must all pull together and strengthen our hearts against despair. Their aim was to pull people together; to let them see the danger, but keep them from collapsing in fear. This is precisely what some governors (particularly Cuomo and Newsom) did as they tried to curb outbreaks in their states. But Trump not only consistently downplayed the danger of the virus, trying to brush it aside as something inconsequential; he actively criticized, opposed, and discredited those governors who wanted to give more open information, in an effort to keep the impending death toll quiet. Trump should have been leading the field, saying "this is dangerous, people are likely to die, but we have to keep the country going while we minimize that risk". But Trump refused to lead. He wanted the country to keep going forward, blindly, without anyone thinking twice about the potential death toll. This dishonesty about the threat that citizens faced was unconscionable; Roughly equivalent to Churchill telling the British public during WWII: "Don't worry about it; the Germans probably aren't going to come here, and if they do we'll beat them off without any trouble..."

Trump failed as badly at points #3 and #4. Even if he had formally adopted a 'do nothing' policy on the national level, he could have authorized funds and resources to those state Governors that wanted a more hands-on effort, telling them he wasn't sure what difference it would make, but he was willing to help them try. He could have coordinated PPE and medical purchase for the states, rather than forcing them to compete with each other. He could have given freely from the national stockpiles, instead of asserting that the stockpiles 'belonged to the government'. And worst of all, he could have used his influence to encourage GOP senators to reach some deal with the Democrat-controlled House. Instead he worsened the Congressional gridlock by emphasizing political polarities.

The problem as I see it is that Trump is a businessman of a particular 'top-down' school, but not a political leader. He knows how to give orders to underlings, but he doesn't know how to listen to anything except his own gut, and he doesn't know how to convince people to work with him. He approached this the way a businessman of that school would: fixated on the idea that the wheels must keep turning, and blithely indifferent to any consequences that might have on those below him (because in this business model, anyone below him is interchangeable and replaceable). Doubtless there are people in the business world who also have the skills for political leadership, but Donald Trump is not one of them, and nothing in his business experience has prepared him prepared him tfor the role. The consequences of that in a crisis are telling.

  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica: That wasn't meant to be a rant against businesspeople, merely an acknowledgement that most businesses are intrinsically centralized, hierarchical, and authoritarian. Business managers don't 'convince' employees to work in particular ways towards particular goals; they 'tell' employees to do so, and don't lead a lot of room for negotiation. The best businesses have channels for upward communication (human resources departments, union negotiations, complaint and idea boxes), but those channels are limited in the best of cases, and DT is not the best of cases. Oct 9, 2020 at 17:18
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica: political leadership is simply a different kettle of fish than business leadership. I'm sure there are many people who qualify for both, but DT isn't one of them. I'll see if I can reword that last paragraph, though. Give me a bit... Oct 9, 2020 at 17:21
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica: I made dome revisions to the last paragraph. Please take a look and suggest any other changes you think are necessary. Oct 9, 2020 at 17:50
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    Your argument now makes a valid point about Trump (even if it wasn't in the Q). If he hadn't been a businessman he'd never had achieved the prominence needed to first get on TV, then get elected directly to POTUS. If he'd been elected dogcatcher first, he'd probably failed at it so that would have been his political end. As it is, he developed the illusion of leadership running a family business he didn't even found. In other circumstances, his biz style would have resulted in failure. He is a particular type of bizman, that enabled his personality and that is part of this mess. Oct 9, 2020 at 19:06

what more could he have done that he didn't

Let's start here: He could have imposed travel ban on some 40,000 American citizens that were in China at the same as the he imposed travel on foreign nationals that were in China.

(You will recall that Governors forbade entry/docking of American citizens on cruise ships until they had completed quarantine period)

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    No, it's not at all clear he could have done that. Imposing a quarantine on returning citizens is entirely different from a travel ban such as that for foreign nationals. Trying to ban your own citizens from entering the country runs against all sorts of fundamental laws and would likely have been struck down in court.
    – user141592
    Oct 8, 2020 at 5:39
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    @Johanna A ban on returning citizens is probably unconstitutional, but a mandatory quarantine period is certainly legal
    – divibisan
    Oct 8, 2020 at 15:14
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    @divibisan Agreed, but this answer is calling for a travel ban similar to that against non-nationals, not a mandatory quarantine.
    – user141592
    Oct 8, 2020 at 15:33
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    "Are you suggesting that the Governor of Florida has more constitutional authority than the US President?": The president (through the surgeon general) can require US citizens to remain in quarantine on a ship, so, no, the governor of Florida does not have more constitutional authority than the president.
    – phoog
    Oct 9, 2020 at 5:13
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    @RigobertoPerez, I'm suggesting that he had the same options as did the Florida Governor. If that meant placing arriving air passengers in quarantine (for example, military bases) for 14 days. I'd suggest that you read the presidential proclamation of Jan 31, the exemptions went beyond US citizens.
    – BobE
    Oct 12, 2020 at 18:52

There are a lot of things he could have done. Are they good? That's another topic.

** Could have done **

One thing he could have done better would have acted faster on the CDC and FDA. It wasn't as obvious initially but they were horribly and incompetently mismanaged that limited the pace at which they could respond. He resolved that fairly quickly and we have had drugs tested and moving through approval faster than has happened in fair history.

Identified at an earlier stage that the previous administration had left stockpiles of PPE virtually empty. It should have been identified very early in his administration that we did not have the stockpiles we should. He did however effectively work with the private sector to rapidly pivot and produce the items we needed such as Ford building respirators, MyPillow making high quality masks, and others to a capacity that exceeded our own needs that we could export to nations that were having challenging times.

He could have probably pushed harder against the narrative of the WHO which he likely had intelligence to some degree that they were blatantly lying to the world and taking direction of China. We now clearly know they knew this was airborne communicable while they were still publicly stating it wasn't. I would be surprised if the CIA and NSA had not known this to be the case but I'm not 100% sure what he would have done as, again, panic could have been just as dangerous to lives as the virus.

He could have perhaps identified our manufacturing deficit when it came to medication for which we are heavily dependent on other nations, namely China, for when he entered office. This put the US in a very difficult position when it came to moving quickly and as well as punishing bad actions by the CCP such as the cover up of their outbreak.

Provide and clearly define what a COVID death actually was. We have many cases up number adjustments both up and down all across the nation. Actual verifiable cases from people passing from being shot or auto accidents being counted in the tallies because they were infected though it played no role in their actual death. This would have heavily reduced the panic as the numbers would have been much lower in fatality. According to the CDC we now know the mortality rate is approximately 0.26% within the US across the entire population. This could have prevented large scale economic damage, increased suicide, drug use, homelessness, and other reactions to the governors in numerous states either malicious or ignorantly acting.

** Now an important thing to remember **

President Donald J. Trump is not a dictator. Maybe people in other countries (or even in this one) don't seem to understand that the United States is a constitutional republic in which our founding documents explicitly restrict federal powers over states. He can't easily force the states to do anything. Which is why we are at something like 130 days of riots in a certain city. He can't easily just walk in, take over, and storm the streets nor could he keep Cuomo, Whitmer, and others from putting a bunch of sick people in elderly homes which enormously inflated the death toll in the US. Some estimates have Cuomo's actions alone conservatively placing him responsible for 20,000 deaths but as many as 40,000.

** What he didn't do wrong: **

Travel ban, he did take that action against advice from people such as Dr. Fauci and in retrospect Dr. Fauci said it was the right move. This was while Joe Biden was calling him a racist xenophobe for enacting it and numerous high level democrats were encouraging large gatherings. As per a number of court cases regarding other travel restrictions President Trump, as do all presidents, have broad authorities on immigration restrictions. The criticism I am seeing largely seems to be nonsensical from the media and key democrat members. They claim he was still letting people into the country. Those people were US citizens for which we have no justification at all to legally bar from entry. We can't just willy nilly make them effectively stateless which some are suggesting we should have done. At best he could have possibly enforced a quarantine which any member of that group could have challenged in a court. Due to a number of legal structures their port of entry could have heavily impacted the outcome of that ruling well beyond the reasonable quarantine as various states have very different authorities during an emergency. Mine for instance can ban the sale of explosives, alcohol, and only legally quarantine the sick. Few other things that are inconsequential however they cannot detain or quarantine anyone that is not provably sick. Trump not only listened to all expert advice to date but experts have said that defying them likely saved thousands if not hundreds of thousands of lives. This case in particular. The travel restriction is a prime example where he was effectively the only person in the room according to witness accounts willing to make that decision.

Mask mandate? Despite what @JonathanReez said the president has no authority under which he could mandate masks. Not to mention none of the numbers he has provided would hold up to scrutiny. It would immediately face and fail any constitutional challenge at a federal level. At best it could have been maintained while being challenged in the court. Numerous forced dress standards have face court challenges at various levels from state to federal and lost. For instance woman can legally be topless in some states and we have well established no one in this country can be forced to wear religious garb. This would very easily be smacked out under a 10th amendment argument as have numerous other attempts for presidents to enforce power on states. Masks haven't even been to be clearly determined to be significantly effective based on analysis across nations.

Some claim he should have been alarmist on the issue. What happened when people were alarmed? There were runs on food, toilet paper, panics, actual violence, and all that was without him screaming bloody murder about an infection that has turned out to have a fairly low mortality rate. I think people arguing against this don't understand what life, liberty, and property damage could occur in a panicked populace. Think of Katrina or the like. We likely would have lost many lives as people are fighting over what they deem essential. Supply chains are elastic and even the gradual run up for the product runs stretched them to the point of nearly breaking. If anything he should have even been less alarmist as there are number of cursory harms that happened simply because of extreme reactions by some states.

He did NOT hold up relief bills. Nancy Pelosi and other leading democrats repeatedly were putting unrelated content in these bills when he was pushing for passing small targeted bills. There were numerous attempts by democrats to bail out localities that had been facing large budget deficits. To tie in mail in voting. Does anyone remember that during the first one they wouldn't pass it in the house without funding for the JFK Center for the Performing Arts then they immediately let a large number of their staff go. Pepperidge Farms remembers.

There are so many nonsensical uninformed replies here I could fill this section up well beyond the limit I'm sure.

  • are so many nonsensical uninformed replies can't say you've improved the numbers much then. The border closures were a good call, for sure, but this was mostly an early-on effect. They really don't matter much by now in how the virus is propagating internally. The mask argument is prime straw man: no one says he could have passed a law forcing their use, merely that he could be a grown up and wear one himself. Finally listening to experts : repeated claims of early vaccine availability or endorsement of hydro really are not a sign of that. Count me among the nonsensical folk :-) Oct 12, 2020 at 19:51

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