The day he declared the COVID-19 pandemic a national emergency, U.S. President Donald Trump made a cryptic offhand remark.
“I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about,” he said at the White House.
Trump wasn’t just crowing. Dozens of statutory authorities become available to any president when national emergencies are declared. They are rarely used, but Trump last month stunned legal experts and others when he claimed — mistakenly — that he has “total” authority over governors in easing COVID-19 guidelines.
That prompted 10 senators to look into how sweeping Trump believes his emergency powers are.
They have asked to see this administration’s Presidential Emergency Action Documents, or PEADs. The little-known, classified documents are essentially planning papers.
The documents don’t give a president authority beyond what’s in the Constitution. But they outline what powers a president believes that the Constitution gives him to deal with national emergencies. The senators think the documents would provide them a window into how this White House interprets presidential emergency powers.
“Somebody needs to look at these things,” Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said in a telephone interview. “This is a case where the president can declare an emergency and then say, ‘Because there’s an emergency, I can do this, this and this.’”
King, seven Democrats and one Republican sent a letter late last month to acting national intelligence director Richard Grenell asking to be briefed on any existing PEADs. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., wrote a similar letter to Attorney General William Barr and White House counsel Pat Cipollone.
“The concern is that there could be actions taken that would violate individual rights under the Constitution,” such as limiting due process, unreasonable search and seizure and holding individuals without cause, King said.
[ Sign up for our Health IQ newsletter for the latest coronavirus updates ]
“I’m merely speculating. It may be that we get these documents and there’s nothing untoward in their checks and balances and everything is above board and reasonable.″
Joshua Geltzer, visiting professor of law at Georgetown University, said there is a push to take a look at these documents because there is rising distrust for the Trump administration’s legal interpretations in a way he hasn’t seen in his lifetime.