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Why Trump thinks a national emergency will get him his border wall

“He has broad leeway to declare an emergency, frankly, whether one exists or not.”

President Donald Trump holds a cabinet meeting and discusses his demand for border wall funding at the White House in January 2019.
President Donald Trump holds a Cabinet meeting and discusses his demand for border wall funding at the White House in January 2019.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

President Donald Trump has declared a national emergency at the southern border in an attempt to get his border wall built. It’s a move he’s been teasing for weeks.

“We’re going to be signing today and registering national emergency, and it’s a great thing to do,” Trump said in a speech at the White House Rose Garden on Friday announcing the decision. He claimed the measure was needed to stop an “invasion” of people, gangs, and drugs. (There is no such invasion.)

Trump is simultaneously signing a bill to fund the government through September and taking executive action, including declaring a national emergency at the US-Mexico border.

In December, he refused to sign a funding bill, spurring a 35-day partial government shutdown. The funding bill he will now sign actually has less money for physical barriers than a bipartisan bill the Senate had proposed last year. As Vox’s Li Zhou explains, this legislation has $1.375 billion for “existing technologies,” such as the current fencing at the southern border. The Senate’s prior legislation had $1.6 billion. Trump wanted $5.7 billion for the construction of some 200 miles of wall.

He is now declaring a national emergency in addition to the spending deal because he doesn’t want it to look like he lost. But can he do it? Many Democrats and some legal scholars have said that Trump can’t declare a national emergency to get the border wall funded. Others say there are avenues he could definitely try, setting up potential battles in Congress and in the courts.

“He has broad leeway to declare an emergency, frankly, whether one exists or not,” Elizabeth Goitein, a co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, who recently wrote an in-depth explainer of presidential emergency powers in the Atlantic, told me in January.

Trump invoking emergency powers is indicative of how far he’ll go to appease his base — Trump is so hell-bent on his wall, it seems he’ll try almost anything. Or at least to continue with this political stunt.

“This is really kind of Hollywood-like, what he’s trying to do,” Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer said.

How Trump thinks he could get the wall by declaring a national emergency

Many presidents have declared national emergencies, including George W. Bush after 9/11 and Barack Obama during the swine flu outbreak in 2009.

In recent history, they’ve done so under the National Emergencies Act of 1976, which lets presidents issue an emergency declaration but under certain constraints — namely, Trump can only use specific powers Congress has already codified by law, and he has to say which powers he’s using. The 1976 law was actually passed to rein in presidential power and codify how presidents were going about declaring emergencies, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Richard Nixon. It offers no definition for what counts as an emergency.

In trying to get wall funding through the National Emergencies Act, the question then becomes which existing laws he can try to use to get the money. That’s where he — and the legal scholars trying to figure out what he’s talking about — run into trouble: identifying the laws and statutes he could actually use. The Brennan Center for Justice tracks about 130 laws that contain special powers Trump could access.

“It could be that by putting together a lot of different sources of emergency authority, the president could tap a lot of different funds and at least start,” Kim Lane Scheppele, a professor at the Center for Human Values at Princeton University, told me.

She pointed to a handful of preexisting laws the president could potentially use.

He could, for example, reallocate military spending on construction projects for the wall. One law allows the defense secretary, after a national emergency declaration, to direct the army’s civil works program to construct a structure needed for national defense and use the military budget to do it. Another lets the secretary direct other military services for construction projects. For example, money could come out of the budget for building housing on military bases for service members and into the budget for the wall.

Or Trump could declare a “state of immigration emergency,” which unlocks an immigration emergency fund. It’s generally supposed to be used to help states feed and house migrants and process their claims, but Scheppele said that it is “vaguely worded enough to permit an edgy interpretation” that could get the funds for the wall. The issue there is that the fund only has about $20 million at the moment, not enough for Trump’s wall.

The White House on Friday identified a couple of specific options for Trump to try to cobble together funds. Ahead of the announcement on Friday, officials said he would redirect about $600 million from the Treasury Forfeiture Fund, an account funded by money seized by the US government; $2.5 billion from the Department of Defense’s counter-drug activities; and $3.6 billion from other military construction accounts. Trump won’t try to take anything from disaster relief.

Some legal experts say Trump can’t do this

Since Trump started talking about declaring an emergency to fund the border wall, there has been some debate about whether he has the legal authority to do so.

Bruce Ackerman, a law professor at Yale University, wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times that Trump cannot declare an emergency at the border, arguing that Trump’s actions would be illegal, and they would force the armed forces tasked with carrying out his orders to choose between abiding by the commander-in-chief’s wishes and committing a federal crime.

“The president of the United States has a constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” Ackerman said in a subsequent phone interview. “It is unconstitutional for him to take care to violate the laws of the United States.”

He called Trump’s threat a “profound crisis.”

Others have echoed Ackerman’s declaration that Trump can’t lawfully declare a state of emergency for the wall.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) in an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union said the idea was a “nonstarter.” Fox News judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano said in a Fox Business appearance that the president “cannot spend money unless it’s been authorized by Congress.”

Some have pointed to a Korean War-era court case, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, in which the Supreme Court ruled that President Harry Truman’s attempt to nationalize US steel mills during a strike in the Korean War was unconstitutional. “If Harry Truman couldn’t nationalize the steel industry during wartime, this president doesn’t have the power to declare an emergency and build a multibillion-dollar wall on the border,” Schiff told CNN.

Scheppele, however, expressed skepticism that the case actually applies in what Trump is proposing to do. “Once you get into the specific area of emergency powers, then the president is acting within a delegated framework,” she said.

Others say Trump can do it — and it might be harder to stop him than you’d think

If Trump does declare a national emergency for the border wall, there will almost certainly be challenges to him in both Congress and the courts. But it’s not entirely obvious they will stick. As we saw with Trump’s travel ban, he’s often willing to do things that go over the legal line, and then leave the courts to figure out where exactly that line lies.

The National Emergencies Act contains a mechanism for Congress to overrule the president by passing a joint resolution out of the House and Senate. With Democrats in control of the House, it would presumably pass there easily, and Ackerman, the Yale professor, says he believes it could pass the Senate too.

“Mitch McConnell does not have the power to bottle this up,” he said. “So that means that there would be a moment of truth for the Republican Party.”

But due to a 35-year-old court case, Congress might not be able to override the president that easily. In the 1983 case Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha, the Supreme Court decided that a one-house legislative veto violated the Constitution. After that, the National Emergencies Act was amended to require the joint resolution to override the president’s declaration — like a typical law, it requires a simple majority in the House and Senate and the president’s signature.

Trump would probably not be willing to sign a joint resolution to reject his own emergency declaration, so that means that Congress would need to override him with a two-thirds majority in each chamber.

“The safeguard you think is there in the National Emergencies Act turns out not to be there, or at least most constitutional scholars who have looked at that question closely think that the Supreme Court would never go for it, especially now that we have a Supreme Court with two new members who are unusually deferential to executive power,” Scheppele said. “It could be that actually nobody could tell him no.”

McConnell, speaking on the Senate floor on Thursday, said he supports the president’s emergency declaration. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) at a press conference on Thursday said congressional Democrats would review their options and are “prepared to respond appropriately” to Trump’s declaration.

A national emergency declaration for the border wall would likely face a challenge in the courts. But it’s not clear which parties would have standing to file a lawsuit, and moreover, any decisions would take time.

Being the first mover in declaring the emergency would give Trump a “tremendous advantage,” Ackerman said.

“There are good legal challenges, to be sure, and I think there would be a real fight,” Goitein, from the Brennan Center, said.

Trump on Friday anticipated the court battle. “Look, I expect to be sued,” he said.

Some Republicans previously encouraged Trump to declare the emergency. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in a tweet earlier in January called on the president to declare an emergency to build the wall. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-SC) said in an interview on CNN that Trump had the right to declare an emergency “because the United States code says so.”

The thing is, there is no emergency

Beyond the legal questions around what Trump can do and how he can do it, there are some more fundamental issues: The US government was shut down over a campaign trail call that Trump uses to rile up his base, and there’s no new emergency at the US-Mexico border.

“There is no national security crisis,” Zelizer, from Princeton, said. “We are not at war, and it’s not clear anything is happening at the border.”

This isn’t the first time Trump has invented an immigration crisis when convenient — ahead of the midterms, he started warning about dire threats from a migrant caravan, only to more or less drop the issue once November 6 came and went. Now that Congress won’t agree to his border wall, and obviously Mexico isn’t paying for it, he’s manufacturing panic yet again.

“There’s an emergency whenever it suits his purposes, but that ought not to be the test,” said Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional scholar at the University of North Carolina’s School of Law.

This also puts to the test the Republican Party and its willingness — or, frankly, lack thereof — to stand up to Trump. The GOP spent years complaining about Obama’s overreach, so now that Trump is making up an emergency to pay for a border wall Congress does not want, what will they do?

“If this were a Democratic president, Republicans would say Obama is going to have to put up or shut up. But because it’s Trump, Republicans will argue that we should defer to the president,” Gerhardt said. “We have to consider at what point this deferral means the president is usurping legislative authority.”

Republicans have expressed concern that Trump’s emergency declaration now might lead to declarations from future Democratic presidents in the future on issues such as climate change or health care. Pelosi on Thursday made sure to point that out. “I know the Republicans have some unease about it, no matter what they say, because if the president can declare an emergency on something that he has created as an emergency, an illusion that he wants to convey, just think of what a president with values can present to the American people,” she said.

Regardless of the concerns, Trump appears determined to give it a go.

“It’s certainly not a slam-dunk that he can,” Goitein said, “but it’s not a slam-dunk that he can’t, either.”

After the government shutdown ended, she questioned in a Twitter thread Trump’s tactic of threatening to declare an emergency if Congress doesn’t give him what he wants. If he’s able to wait three weeks, and Congress in that time decides against funding against the wall, “declaring an emergency to build one anyway is a massive abuse of power and quite likely a violation of the Constitution.”

By going in this direction, she wrote, “he makes it about 10 times more likely that lawsuits challenging the declaration will succeed.”

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