In taking the unprecedented step Friday of declaring a national emergency to fund a course of action Congress had rejected, President Donald Trump has set a devastating precedent that even members of Congress who believe a huge border wall needs to be built are honor bound to stop.
Trump signed an emergency declaration enabling him to build a wall by tapping into billions of dollars of funds appropriated for other purposes. The president had no other way to save face. Congress denied him the taxpayer dollars he wanted, and Trump’s promise that Mexico would pay for the wall continues to be an empty one.
The emergency declaration came as the president signed a congressional budget deal to keep the government open. The agreement included $1.375 billion to construct fencing, not walls. Trump said he will combine that money with $3.6 billion set aside for military construction projects, $2.5 billion from federal drug-enforcement programs and $600 million from a federal asset-forfeiture fund to construct sections of wall. The $8 billion total exceeds the $5.7 billion he had asked for and been denied by Congress. It also lets Trump claim victory in a process that, after he capitulated and reopened the government following a 35-day shutdown, had become a clear and stinging defeat.
Trump’s purely political move will undercut his legal ability to defend this dubious exercise of emergency powers. He even said so himself in the Rose Garden, remarking, “I could do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn’t need to do this, but I’d rather do this much faster.”
An epidemic of opioid abuse does plague the nation, and drugs do come over the Southern border, but officials say the vast majority of fentanyl and heroin ferried north is in vehicles crossing at legal U.S. checkpoints. And even more of the purest and most deadly fentanyl killing Americans reaches our shores in mailed packages, not cars and duffel bags. By shifting money from other drug-interdiction strategies to his wall, Trump risks impeding efforts to stop the flow in packages and at checkpoints. As for immigrants crossing the border without permission, it’s dishonest to call a problem that has steadily diminished for 15 years a sudden emergency. Not one of the nine members of the House of Representatives who serve districts bordering Mexico, Republican or Democrat, supports Trump’s wall, and Republican El Paso Mayor Dee Margo has relentlessly debunked Trump’s false claim that his city, long one of the safest in the nation, was crime-ridden until 53 miles of wall was built in 2008.
If the flows of people or drugs across the vast expanse of border are truly an emergency, Trump is guilty of malpractice for not having declared one sooner. A real crisis would demand an immediate and temporary solution as well to deal with the supposed crisis during the time it takes to erect his barrier. That isn’t happening now. For Trump supporters who see merit and urgency in the need for a physical wall, the declaration may seem very attractive. But there are great dangers here for the nation, and if Republicans can’t see that while one of their own has the White House, they should be able to imagine it under a Democratic president.
- There are plenty of national concerns that some Democrats might call “emergencies” if doing so gave them the opportunity to ignore Republican opposition in Congress and divert money to promote their initiatives. Today, it’s a wall. Tomorrow, the emergency could be directed at ending gun violence or stopping global warming.
Opponents of Trump’s poorly drafted emergency declaration have vowed to sue. But it should not have to come to that. In recent weeks, in public and in private, even Republicans have counseled Trump against his power grab, correctly recognizing this as a separation-of-powers issue. Now that Trump has acted, Congress, which has the power of the purse, must rise above partisanship and defend the Constitution. Trump’s attempt at political expediency presents a danger to the nation far in excess of that presented by an unwalled border.
An amendment to the 1976 law granting the president the power to declare emergencies allows Congress to end the emergency by a joint resolution. The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives must act first, and if its resolution against Trump’s declaration passes, the Republican-controlled Senate will be required to take a vote. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won’t be able to subvert the process. Senate Republicans who care about being faithful to the Constitution — or who simply fear what Democrats would do with an unconstrained power to declare an emergency when they hold the White House — should send a rebuke to Trump.
If the president uses the first veto of his presidency to stymie Congress, lawmakers must come together to override it. Yes, there is an immediate crisis in this nation. It’s an unprecedented attempt by a weakened president to abuse executive power.