Here's What Trump Can Do in a Coronavirus National Emergency

The Stafford Act allows the Trump administration to throw around plenty of cash, but it doesn’t let the president do anything truly crazy — like postpone the 2020 election or suspend the rule of law.
March 13, 2020, 6:02pm
President Donald J. Trump meets with Prime Minister of Ireland Leo Varadkar the Oval Office at the White House on Thursday, March 12, 2020 in Washington, DC.

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic will unlock some $50 billion in federal dollars to fight the disease.

The move involves invoking the Stafford Act, a law that empowers the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to take a more central role in combating the crisis and unleashes a tidal wave of cash.

So far, FEMA has been largely on the sidelines of the national response to the broadening outbreak, which the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on Wednesday.

But Trump’s declaration appears set to change that, after a dramatic cascade of headlines this week shows how much normal American life has been upended by the crisis.

The outbreak has prompted school closures across the country, a market nose-dive, cancellations of national basketball and baseball games, and a 30-day ban on visitors from Europe, and has forced Broadway to go dark. As of Friday afternoon, there are over 1,600 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the U.S. and at least 41 deaths, while many experts estimate the real number of infections to be in the thousands.

Trump made the announcement at a 3 p.m. press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House, flanked by top executives from American companies like CVS, Walgreens, Target and Walmart, along with his top coronavirus advisors. As Trump spoke, the stock market rallied.

Here’s what happens after Trump declares a national emergency, and flexes the power given to him by the Stafford Act.

What is The Stafford Act?

The Stafford Act is a 1988 law that allows FEMA to coordinate the national response to a catastrophe and assist state and local governments.

The act lets FEMA tap a $40 billion dollar emergency treasure chest set aside by Congress to do things like build temporary medical facilities, deploy response teams, help patients travel to get help, and other measures. On Friday, Trump put the number at $50 billion, though it wasn’t immediately clear where the discrepancy arose from.

Trump’s predecessors have used the Stafford Act to fight outbreaks before. Former President Barack Obama used it in 2009 to battle H1N1, aka the “swine flu.” Former president Bill Clinton used the Stafford Act to help combat the West Nile virus.

The Stafford Act allows for a very different, and much more limited, state of emergency than that allowed by the National Emergencies Act — and the two aren’t to be confused. The Stafford Act basically just empowers FEMA. That other kind could be much broader, and could theoretically let Trump do much more intense stuff like seize control of traffic on the internet or invoke martial law.

So while the Stafford Act allows the Trump administration to throw around plenty of cash, it doesn’t let him do anything truly crazy — like postpone the 2020 election or suspend the rule of law.

Trump didn’t get into the legal nitty-gritty during his remarks on Friday. But a White House official told The New York Post afterwards that Trump also utilized the National Emergencies Act to allow the Department of Health and Human Services to repurpose broad swaths of federal dollars used for programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Only the president has the power to invoke the Stafford Act, and until pretty recently, Trump’s been reluctant to do so, in a rare and curious case of restraint on his part despite urging from Democrats.

Instead, Trump downplayed the danger of the virus for weeks while praising himself for limiting travel from China back in January, and then from Europe on Wednesday. On Thursday, Trump said he hadn’t yet decided whether to invoke the Stafford Act. “I have a lot of emergency actions I can take," Trump responded, when asked about it.

Is FEMA jumping in now?

Sure looks like it, but there are details to consider.

For states to tap into the emergency war chest, governors must request a “disaster declaration,” which then has to be granted by FEMA, according to the details in a letter signed by three-dozen Democratic senators this week asking Trump to invoke the Stafford Act.

After that happens, the funds could then be used to help states do things like:

  • Pay for diagnostic tests
  • Pay to help patients get treatment
  • Build temporary medical care facilities
  • Provide security to medical sites

On Wednesday, FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor was asked how his agency has been preparing for a potential national emergency declaration, and Gaynor demurred — pointing instead to the Health and Human Services Department.

“They are the lead in this COVID-19 disease,” Gaynor said at hearing on FEMA’s priorities in 2020. “We have from the beginning been providing inter-agency coordination, planning, analysis on a number of different things that we have a specialty in.”

But now, FEMA appears set to get a lot more involved.

Cover: President Donald J. Trump meets with Prime Minister of Ireland Leo Varadkar the Oval Office at the White House on Thursday, March 12, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)