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Emergency Powers, Real and Imagined: How President Trump Used and Failed to Use Presidential Authority in the COVID-19 Crisis

Can a president abuse emergency powers by not using them? Elizabeth Goiten explains that President Trump has utilized aggressive rhetoric and claimed the powers of the president during an emergency are absolute. Yet he has been restrained to a fault when deploying emergency powers to address the COVID-19 national health crisis. His approach to emergency powers in regards to immigration and domestic quarantines reveals a tug-of-war between the inclination to assert sweeping power and the desire to avoid responsibility for the public health and economic consequences of the pandemic.

At every stage, our national response to COVID-19 has been hampered by a lack of available testing, testing equipment, personal protective equipment, ventilators, and other medical supplies; problems which President Trump could have attacked using legitimate legal authorities. While the use of emergency powers is discretionary by nature, President Trump may have illuminated a new abuse, the politically-motivated failure to deploy emergency powers in a genuine crisis. 

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Elizabeth Goitein
Elizabeth Goitein co-directs the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
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