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Opinion | Trump Is Politicizing the Pandemic. Governors Can Fight Back.

As the Trump administration has floundered in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the nation’s governors have tried to step into the breach.

Gavin Newsom of California was the first to issue a statewide order to stay home. In Washington State, Jay Inslee’s aggressive measures have gotten credit as the rate of increase of the infection appears to be starting to slow. And Andrew Cuomo’s daily news conferences in New York have become a steady and popular source of sound information and empathy.

These governors and other local officials have offered a welcome alternative to the president’s erratic directives and briefings. And their forceful actions may seem to vindicate the wisdom of the founders, who reserved important functions to the states so that the national government would not grow too powerful. As Vice President Mike Pence put it on March 22, “One of the things that makes America different is that we have a system of federalism.”

But in the context of the pandemic, federalism has allowed President Trump to indulge his worst tendencies. States depend on the federal government to confront disease outbreaks like the coronavirus pandemic. In the early days of Covid-19, state and local officials weren’t in a position to foresee the scope of the threat or control the levers that could have suppressed it.

Later, because nearly all states must balance their budgets, they couldn’t use deficit spending for bailouts. They can’t print money as the Federal Reserve can. And they still don’t have the resources to protect their residents — which makes it risky for them to anger Mr. Trump as they seek to fulfill their institutional role as a check against federal abuses.

Federalism’s limits have been apparent since the first reports of the virus emerged from Wuhan, China. In January, U.S. intelligence agencies warned that the Chinese government was minimizing the outbreak, but state and local officials didn’t have that information and so could not counter the president when he waved off the threat. In February, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pledged but failed to put in place a system of widespread testing, states and counties didn’t have the capacity to act on their own. They had neither the centralized apparatus to conduct blanket testing nor the authority to waive regulations over such testing enforced by the Food and Drug Administration, another source of federal power.

The next task was undertaking the vast production and allocation of masks, other protective gear and ventilators. Instead of centralizing this task, President Trump said from the White House lectern, “Governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work.” He added, “You know, we’re not a shipping clerk.”

But governors can’t invoke the Defense Production Act, which allows the federal government to order businesses to manufacture necessary medical equipment. Nor can they enlist the Federal Emergency Management Agency to manage the giant project of distributing the equipment. The vacuum left by the federal government forced states to compete for scarce equipment like ventilators, driving up their price and benefiting shady middlemen while causing fatal delays.

Mr. Trump has, characteristically, revealed and exploited defects in the federal system. Unwilling to take the blame for shutting down the economy when he thought there was little public support for the move, he sparred with governors like Mr. Cuomo and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan while also hiding behind them.

“The governors, locally, are going to be in command,” he said on the same day Mr. Pence spoke of federalism’s virtues. “We will be following them, and we hope they can do the job.”

When the president finally began taking the pandemic more seriously, he shifted to using the governors for partisan gain. Last Friday, Mr. Trump said they “should be appreciative, because you know what? When they’re not appreciative to me, they’re not appreciative to the Army Corps. They’re not appreciative to FEMA.” He then said he told Mr. Pence not to call those who were unappreciative.

Whether or not Mr. Trump meant it, he made his point: Governors who criticized the president would put their states at risk of getting short shrift from the federal government.

The following day, The Washington Post detailed the uneven distribution of protective gear from FEMA. Colorado, Maine and Massachusetts, led by two Democrats and a Republican critic of the president’s pandemic policies, received only small fractions of what they asked for while Florida got the delivery it requested — twice over.

Mr. Trump and Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, had traded praise even as both rejected the advice of public health authorities, with Mr. Trump speaking of jettisoning restrictions by Easter and Governor DeSantis allowing Florida beaches to stay open while the state’s infection rate soared. (Mr. DeSantis finally issued a statewide state-at-home order on Wednesday.)

Federal officials say that in allocating equipment, they have made their best assessment of the relative needs of states. But several governors remain frustrated. Mr. Trump has politicized this process at a moment when states are under maximum strain.

While the governors who have acted with foresight and care have received deserved praise, others have sowed division. Mr. DeSantis blamed travelers from New York for the problems his own policies caused. Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island sent the National Guard to stop cars with out-of-state license plates at her state’s border and said law enforcement officers would knock on doors in coastal communities in search of visitors from other states. Those are measures that public health experts have not called for and that may be unconstitutional.

Other governors, in Texas as well as Florida, have refused to impose adequate statewide social distancing. Inconsistent state policies hamper the national effort to throttle the contagion. They have also thrown into disarray efforts by business to maintain supply chains across state lines. Last week, the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers wrote to the National Governors Association asking for uniform directives with a single definition of “essential” businesses that can operate.

Instead of pandering to Mr. Trump or to their voters, governors should recognize their common interest in a consistent national response to the crisis, and put coordinated pressure on the White House to make evidence-based policy. Mayors can assist, as the U.S. Conference of Mayors did last week by surveying its members and telling the public that almost 90 percent of cities did not have enough test kits or masks and other protective equipment for health care workers.

It’s a lesson of the schoolyard that applies to politics: Only a united group can defeat a bully. When politicians take on Mr. Trump one by one, they can’t match the power of the American presidency. Congress has failed to challenge Mr. Trump effectively because the Republican-led Senate refuses to put the interests of the institution above partisanship. But the governors, with their direct responsibility for the welfare of their citizens, have urgent reason to band together and do better.

This week, some of them did that in challenging Mr. Trump’s assertion that the supply of testing kits was sufficient. “That’s just not true,” Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, a Republican, told NPR. Other governors agreed with that assessment in interviews elsewhere.

The governors can’t take over the federal government. But they can raise hell.

Eric Posner is a professor at the University of Chicago Law School and is the author of the forthcoming “The Demagogues’ Playbook: The Battle for American Democracy from the Founders to Trump.” Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine and a Truman Capote fellow for creative writing and law at Yale Law School.

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