7. Can Presidents Do Whatever They Want During a National Emergency?

Throughout U.S. history, presidents have used national emergencies to abuse their power. While the president is the Commander in Chief of the nation, that doesn’t mean his authority is without limits.


Key Terms 

  • Enumerated Powers: A list of things the government is allowed to do 
  • Executive Orders: A rule or order issued by the president to an executive branch of the government and having the force of law.


Here’s the transcription of our conversation:

Connor: Hey Brittany!

Brittany: Hi Connor.

Connor: You know, I am thinking today about presidents in America. We have a president, but I was talking to my kids about what a president can and can’t do.

Brittany: Ooh, that’s a good question.

Connor: And it seems like a lot of people feel like the president basically has no limits when coronavirus was happening. What do you remember? Some of the things that president Trump did, did any come to mind about what kind of things that he was doing?

Brittany: Travel bans in the very, very beginning, there were travel bans people from the United Kingdom and from Europe, I believe it was, they couldn’t, they couldn’t come here.

Connor: That’s right. He also forced companies to produce things. He was telling certain companies, you have to make masks and you have to make, I think, hand sanitizer or something like that. He was, he was kind of dictating to companies what they had to do.

Brittany: Think. He also told for a while, some of the meat industries that they had to stay open, even if there was an outbreak they had to, they had to stay. Cause we were worried about having enough meat.

Connor: That’s right. Then he also signed some laws that Congress passed, like giving money directly to people. I think it was $1,200. An giving out grants to companies is called the paycheck protection program and they could basically get free money and he signed

Brittany: Bailing out airlines too.

Connor: That’s right. They bailed out the airline industry. And, and what that means is for those of our listeners who have the The Tuttle Twins and the Messed Up Market, there’s a really fun drawing. This may be one of my most favorite drawings from the whole series about showing a hot air balloon, which is inflation. And it’s tied to this boat. That’s sinking down in the water below. And the inflation is trying to pull this boat out of the water, which is sinking. And it shows that that’s what a bailout is. They’re printing more money. The government’s just saying, oh, we’ll just create all this new money and we’ll give it to in this case, the airlines, right. It’s before it’s been ink and other things like that. Okay. So I’ve been thinking about Brittany, cuz it feels like our president can kind of do whatever he wants. So let’s say you’re in your class years ago and the kid comes up to you and says what did they call you? Miss Bri will say, miss Britney, miss Britney. What is a president allowed to do? How would you answer that question?

Brittany: Ah, what is a president allowed to do? Well, the cool thing about that is we have a little handy thing called the constitution. Now whether or not the constitution gets it right all the time is a, a discussion for another time.

Connor: Your episode.

Brittany: Yes, but the constitution actually says just a few things that the president can do and it’s, it’s listed there one by one. Now we get into some trouble sometimes because there are things called executive orders. Executive orders. I don’t wanna say they allow the president do whatever he wants because he can’t, but they do give him more authority than usual. So a lot of times if something bad happen set’s see, trying to think of a time recently, other than coronavirus, that an executive order was used after nine 11. I believe a lot of executive orders were used in times of emergency presidents will pass them to make, to make a law right away. The problem is then sometimes those laws stay on the books and we don’t ever get them off. So, so there is, there is some, I don’t wanna say abuse power, but it’s abuse power that goes on. Even though our constitution does say, the president can only do this, this and this, those are called enumerated powers,

Connor: Enumerated. Meaning each of the powers are, are listed out.

Brittany: Yes

Connor: It’s not that, Hey president, you can do whatever you want. It’s like here, you can only do these things. And I think you’re right. We’ll say for another episode talking about what is the constitution like, how did it try to limit the power of the government? And then the more interesting question is, has that worked right?

Brittany: Yeah.

Connor: Like has it actually restrained the power of the government? I think that would be a really fun discussion. And our listeners probably already know how we would answer those questions. But it will be fun to talk about nonetheless. Okay. So you, you tell the kid in your class that answer the constitution, the enumerated powers. It’s interesting though, right? Because the question is how is a president or, or not the question,, but one follow up question might be how is a president different than a king? So the king asks to that follow up question. And how would you explain maybe some differences between a president and a king.

Brittany: Yes. Well, so a king and a president are gonna answer to different people. Ack in the day there was something called, this is a little bit of a big term, but Divine Right of Kings. So what that meant is the king thought that he was the ultimate authority except for God alone. But that God, if you, if you believe in a God anointed him full power, so he had full power, he had a blank check, pretty much do whatever he wanted. That was also condoned by religions. Imagine that. So pretty much a king could do anything. There was no kinda

Connor: Like a, it’s kinda like a dictator, right? You

Brittany: Can just kind of like a dictator.

Connor: Yeah. You can dictate to whatever you want. So, you know, we have a system where we don’t quite have that. We have the constitution and the president isn’t totally allowed to, you know, boss people around it, the president, in theory, at least couldn’t say, you know, we want all men above the age of, you know, 40 to wear tutus on Fridays. You know, like he can’t just like come up with random rules and, and tell everyone what to do. But it’s really interesting that over time the government has consolidated it, it has accumulated more and more power. And as the government has grown, as it’s accumulated more power, that means the president has more things that he can do more laws that he can choose to enforce in the way he wants.

Brittany: Or laws that he can choose to veto too

Connor: True. Or maybe appropriately for this conversation laws that can be suspended. So in times of a national emergency, what President Trump did, what a lot of governors did, which we’ll talk about governors in just a second was not, you know, that not passing new laws with an executive order, but saying we’re not gonna enforce that law right now. There was actually some, I think some good things that president Trump did in suspending, some laws that prevented for example, the ability to do it’s called telehealth, which is

Brittany: Yes.

Connor: Ou know, like pretend you’re my doctor and right now we’re chatting over zoom. We’re, we’re using video chat technology. I’m not in the office, but if I say, Hey, Dr. Brittany, I have this problem to do a video chat like that and get the medical help you need using a video chat.

Brittany: I did it yesterday. It was great. Doesn’t yeah. Like you don’t even have to be, you know, social distancing to do it. You can do it whenever, if you can’t get to an office, cuz it’s too far away, you can use a video to talk to your doctor.

Connor: That’s great. And so there were these laws that, that in some circumstances prevented it or made it hard to do this telehealth. And so president Trump was like, well, if everyone’s home and they can’t go to the doctor’s office, let’s suspend these particular laws that, that say that you can’t do it or you can’t, you know, pay for it and so forth. That way it can be used. And I, I think that was a good thing. I think there’s some opportunities to suspend or stop bad laws. But you know, when we have a president who has so much power, when we have a president, who’s in charge of a military, that’s in a whole bunch of countries. And I think, you know, doing a lot of bad stuff, maybe on another episode, we we’ll talk about war, which is a pretty crazy topic to talk.

Brittany: Yes it is.

Connor: But the president has a lot of power and he controls our president controls, you know, probably the most powerful military on earth. And, and that’s kind of that’s kind of a scary thing, Brittany, that one person has that much power. That seems to me like a big problem that we shouldn’t want one person to have that much power. Right?

Brittany: No. And in fact, our founding fathers knew that, right? Because they had already lived under a king, a king who was pretty abusive. He did a lot of really terrible things, enacting laws without telling them right. He would just change the rules of the game. They didn’t really know what was going on. So when our founding, so these founding fathers are the ones who sign the declaration, but there’s also something called found or framers. The framers were the ones who wrote the constitution, wrote these, these first early laws in America. And they wanted to make sure that we never had a king again, that we never had somebody who had that much authority. So that’s why in our government, we have three different branches of government. Have you ever noticed that we’ve got three? So you’ve got the presidents, the executive branch. Then we have the legislative branch. So that’s senators, congressmen, and then we have the judicial branch. So that’s the Supreme court that’s judges. So all three of them are supposed to kind of work together to make sure that no one ever has so much power where the people get hurt because, because power’s unchecked because they can have used that power.

Connor: Brittany, one thing that I think is a problem with one person having a lot of power is that they might make decisions that they don’t really feel the effect of. Nd so if, if one person is able to make decisions for another person that other person is gonna feel the effects, they’re going to experience the problems, the challenges, if the, if the president says I’m gonna shut down the economy, but the president, you know, is still paid for, with taxpayer dollars. And he’s still fed really well in the Whitehouse, you know, with the Butler and the nice food, like he doesn’t feel those effects. And so when the government has all this power, when the president has all this power, those decisions, if the person making the decisions doesn’t really feel the effect of them, how do they know if they made a good decision? Or in fact, I think you have a clip to share. That’s kind of a silly example of something like this. When, what, what movie is this from? You’re telling

Brittany: Me, this is from Shrek. This is one of my favorite movies too. And this is an example of somebody using too much power. So we’re gonna play this fun clip for a second.

Lord Farquaad (Shrek Movie): Some of you may die, but it’s a sacrifice. I am willing to make.

Brittany: That one makes me laugh every time.

Connor: What was that guy’s name? That was Farquaad, right?

Brittany: Farquaad, Lord Farquaad. Yeah.

Connor: And so here is saying some of you may die, but I’m willing to make that sacrifice. He’s making these decisions for other people we talked about in another episode, that’s collectivism, right?

Brittany: Yes. Yeah. Making what? Yeah. Making a decision for a whole group of people.

Connor: Yeah. So that that’s a problem. Right? Cause he far quad was not affected. What, what was happening in that clip? Why was, how were other people gonna die? Do you remember the circumstances of what happened with that?

Brittany: I don’t even remember the it’s been so long, but that line has always stuck out. I believe.

Connor: He’s like sending them to go battle the drawing.

Brittany: It was like a gladiator type thing is what I thought they think they have to battle Shrek. Right? Wasn’t that?

Connor: Oh, yeah. Maybe that, I don’t know. Our listeners are probably shaking their head.

Brittany: They’re like, they’re like, that is not the story.

Connor: You guys need to go watch Shrek. Okay, fine. That’s been a few years. But I like that clip that you shared because I think it definitely shows the problem is that, well, wait a minute. Why should one person, whether it’s a king or a president, be able to make decisions on behalf of other people like that. So, we we’ve got the president, but during like national emergencies, when things get really bad, especially with like coronavirus, Brittany, I think there were a lot of things that the president did, some of which were good. A lot of which were bad, but I think a lot of the bad problems, a lot of the concerning things didn’t come from the president, they came from the governors. So the governors, every state has a governor. It’s kind of like a, a mini president

Brittany: Kinda say the president of a state in, in it left for lack of a better term. Yeah.

Connor: Yeah. And you talked about the different branches of government. So this is still the executive branch, except rather than the executive branch for the federal government, the national government, this is in the executive branch for the state and Britney. There were a lot of cases where governors were bossing people around. They were saying, you know, you have to wear a mask. And if you don’t, then you can go to jail or you can’t go play at park. So you can’t go to your church.

Brittany: Or the whole shutting the economy down in California, shut it down for several, several months. Right. And that was all because of the governor.

Connor: Right. And so the governor can just shut businesses down and say, you’re, you know, restaurants, you’re not allowed to open. And everyone has to work from home. It’s crazy to think that these government leaders, these presidents, if you will, of the, the national government or even the state government, can boss people around like that and assume this type of authority there’s even the, in the executive branch at a city level there’s mayors. Right? Yeah. And so we saw a lot of mayors doing this as well. So the constitution that you talked about, Bernie talks about the, the federal level, the enumerated powers say, Hey, president, you can do this, that and the other, but each state has their own constitution as well. And so for example, you know, let’s say you’re in Texas, the Texas state constitution will spell out, okay. Our governor is allowed to do this and allowed to do that. But what’s really interesting, Brittany, in most of these constitutions, it says, or, or in their laws, it’ll say, well, and if the governor decides to declare an emergency, then he can do whatever he wants and make all these orders. That’s scary. Yeah. Now what I’m thinking is, well, if I’m in power and I’m a bad guy and I want more power, all I gotta do is find a way to declare an emergency. And then I can make all these laws.

Brittany: It almost sounds like emergencies kind of help out people who wanna abuse power or people who might be inclined to abuse power, because it gives them a reason to pass all these laws.

Connor: What you just said, Brittany, hopefully you guys are listening on your iPad, flip back 10 seconds and listen to what you just said. That was very profound. And I think if you wanna jot a note, that should be a topic for another conversation, Brittany, that you, I agree had because we see that in history time and time again, that those who are most likely to want to have power over other people are typically not good people. They might, you know, be nice to their wife and be a good dad. And they’re, they’re like, you know, decent people, but the type of people who want to control others, I think are often probably not the greatest people that I want to be around. And so when those people get into government and, and get power, they want more power. And so when something bad happens when coronavirus happens or a terrorist attack happens or a, you know, some banks shut down or whatever there’s, there’s the quote, Brittany, you’ve probably heard this that never let a good crisis go to waste.

I was just gonna say that. Yep.

Yep. And it’s this idea that, oh, something’s bad, bad is happening. We can use this to our advantage because people are scared and they’re gonna look to us for protection and we can tell them, Hey, let us do all these things and it’ll keep you safe. And what will they say? Oh, okay. You know, we’ll comply. And that’s how these presidents, these governors get more and more authority over time. So I think that’s a trend we need to watch for Brittany. What would you suggest to the person who’s concerned about this? What can the average person do as they’re listening to this? How, how do we make sure? I don’t know. This is a tough question. How do we make sure that, you know, our presidents don’t get this much power or the governors don’t get this much power, someone listening to this, they might think, well, yeah, that’s a problem, but what do we do about it? What type of answer could we give someone like that? Who has that concern?

Brittany: Yeah. Well, there’s this really cool guy named Matt Kibby. I highly recommend you Google his name. He’s got, he used to have really cool sideburns. Now. He just got a really cool beard. He once told me that government goes to those who show up and I thought that was a really good quote. And what he means by that is you have to be active in your government. You can’t expect the government to just do the right thing. Especially since we know the kind of people sometimes who are attracted to being in power and not always the best people. So it’s really important to keep them accountable, call their offices, talk to your, your local state Congressman. Even your city council, go to your zoning meetings, go to all these things and make sure you show up and you make sure you hold your government accountable for what they’re doing. Because if nobody says anything, then they’re just gonna get away with it and they’re gonna keep doing it.

Connor: Yeah. There’s that story of the emperor who has no clothes, right? Yes. And he is going down the parade naked and everyone’s like, pretending that, you know, he has clothes on until, you know, someone’s finally like what’s going on. You know, you don’t have clothes and it takes those people to stand up and object and say, wait a minute, this is a problem. Maybe for some people it’s just, you know, posting on social media. Maybe if there’s someone that’s writing like a letter to the editor, to the newspaper, if those things still exist at the time, our listeners are listening to this planet podcast. They’re quickly going outta fashion. May maybe it’s having a, a book club and having people over to help educate them or Tuttle Twins books or some other books. Maybe it’s going to a meeting where the governor’s at and walking right up and trying to talk to ’em and say, Hey, I have this concern. There’s so many different things that we can do. It’s gonna be different for every person. But Brittany, I think, I think your advice or Matt’s advice through you is right. That we gotta do something or that, because, you know, if we don’t show up, if we don’t object, if we don’t make our voices heard, then you know, the, the Farquaads of the world are going to our decisions for us.

I think that’s super important. Good, good topic, Brittany. Thanks for sharing with us.

Brittany: Of course.

Connor: All right. See you guys next time.

Brittany: See you next time.


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