Abuses of Power Amid Coronavirus


The coronavirus pandemic presented unique and dangerous opportunities for autocrats and heads of state with anti-democratic tendencies to further consolidate power. In March, for example, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban directed his country’s parliament — ruled overwhelmingly by his authoritarian Fidesz Party — to provide him extraordinary emergency authority, including an indefinite suspension of the legislature, the freedom to govern with one-man rule, and the ability to impose prison time on individuals violating quarantine or spreading anything the government deems “fake news.”

The coronavirus pandemic also illuminated the life and death consequences of authoritarianism. Authoritarians’ incessant need to control the narrative, disdain for independent institutions, and visceral objection to any restrictions on their power undermine governments’ ability to swiftly, fairly, and effectively respond to public emergencies. President Trump showed how. He used disinformation to undersell the coronavirus’s threat to the public for his personal political benefit. He said governors’ access to him is contingent on how much they complimented or criticized the federal response. And he intermittently suggested that he would override the prerogatives of governors and the independence of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to “open up” the economy or ease social distancing measures earlier than the consensus of public health experts recommended.

During this extraordinary public health emergency, it was imperative that Americans remained clear-eyed about the dangers of authoritarianism. The United States may well have needed to impose some severe restrictions — including fines for those who flouted public guidance on social distancing — in order to save lives, but that only made it all the more important to remain vigilant against any attempt to consolidate power.

For more on our work to protect democracy amid the coronavirus pandemic click here.

Politicizing Aid to States

The lack of publicly available information about how the federal government procured and allocated scarce resources in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic created a situation that was ripe for abuse. President Trump repeatedly suggested that he would reward political allies and punish states whose governors criticized the federal government’s response or failed to display sufficient gratitude. Some reporting and anecdotal data suggested that he followed through on this threat. For example, President Trump at one point announced via tweet that Colorado would immediately receive 100 ventilators thanks to a request from Colorado’s Republican Senator Cory Gardner — who was up for reelection — weeks after Colorado’s Democratic governor requested 10,000 additional ventilators. President Trump also made promises over the phone that FEMA had to accommodate, and a White House official quoted by the Washington Post indicated that President Trump was paying close attention to Florida’s needs in light of its importance to his reelection. Regardless of whether the President actually directed the distribution of resources based on politics, the appearance that he did limited governors’ willingness to risk retaliation by speaking openly about the federal government’s response.

Augmenting these concerns, President Trump rejected Congressional attempts at oversight. On March 27, Congress passed the CARES Act, a $2 trillion spending package aimed at stemming the fallout from the coronavirus. To oversee the disbursement of those funds, Congress provided for a new Special Inspector General to conduct audits and investigations and to report to Congress, as well as a Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. In signing the Act, the President issued a signing statement noting that he would not permit the Special Inspector General to report directly to Congress. And on April 6, President Trump summarily removed the dutifully selected head of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, Glenn A. Fine.

On April 13, 2020, Protect Democracy, the Project on Government Oversight, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, American Oversight, Public Citizen, and the Constitutional Accountability Center released the following recommendations for Congress and the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, including (a) legislation and (b) a set of recommendations to each of the relevant oversight bodies aimed at ensuring public access to information about the federal government’s allocation of aid and resources to states and deterring any distribution of resources on the basis of politics or patronage.

An external link to the document is here.

State-Imposed Protest Bans

During this extraordinary public health emergency, it was imperative for states to remain constitutionally compliant while they imposed restrictions  — such as banning protests — to protect the health and safety of their residents.

On May 19, 2020, renowned First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams joined Protect Democracy counsel John Langford in drafting a New York Times op-ed detailing various state government responses to the pandemic and how they violated the Constitution.

The op-ed built upon a letter we delivered to California Governor Gavin Newsom and the California Highway Patrol urging them to reconsider CHP’s ban on protests. The letter was co-signed by a coalition of leading First Amendment organizations, litigators, and scholars; including Mr. Abrams, Lyrissa Lidsky, Laurence Tribe, the Niskanen Center, and the Center for Media and Democracy. It included a series of recommendations aimed at bringing CHP’s policy into constitutional compliance, including issuing a written policy on any limitations on protests, defining the ban’s duration, tailoring the ban to enable protests that meet social distancing guidelines, and exempting in-car protests.

For a PDF of the California protest ban letter, please click here.

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