In a play to his base, President Donald Trump has declared a national emergency to fund his promised border wall after Congress declined to provide money for the barrier. It’s a trick and a wake-up call for lawmakers writes DW’s Michael Knigge.
Let’s start with the good news: At least there won’t be another government shutdown.
The bad news? In addition to signing the spending bill passed by Congress to fund the government, US President Donald Trump also declared a national emergency to fulfill his campaign promise of building a “big, beautiful wall” along the US border with Mexico.
While it’s tempting to pooh-pooh the avoidance of another shutdown in light of Mr Trump’s shortsighted shenanigans to get access to money to fund his ill-advised wall, we really should not. Anyone who witnessed the deep distress and often life-altering consequences that the last Trump-triggered shutdown had for millions of Americans will be thankful that at least the specter of another government closure has been banished.
But Trump would not be Trump if he did not create another spectacle. Despite a forced shutdown, he, the self-styled best negotiator in the world, failed to close a deal with a divided Congress that included money for his long-promised wall. And let’s not forget that he also failed to fulfill his initial promise that Mexico would pay for the wall. Signing the spending measure and the emergency declaration makes it is official: US taxpayers, not Mexico, will be paying for Mr Trump’s wall.
To obfuscate this fact, Mr Trump reached for one of his most popular tricks: boasting that he had solved a crisis without mentioning that it was a crisis of his own creation. To be sure, the situation at the border is difficult. But it is a humanitarian crisis, not a national emergency, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rightly pointed out. What’s more, the time-consuming process of building a wall will do little to remedy the supposed national emergency taking place at the border right now.
But truly improving the current situation was never the intended goal. That’s why the national emergency is a ruse. Mr Trump’s real goal is signifying action for his core supporters. By circumventing what he will surely portray as a weak Congress, Mr Trump styles himself as a decisive leader, who –when push comes to shove – will flout lawmakers to act in what he misconstrues as the national interest.
And, though a national emergency is unpopular with most Americans, it is supported by the president’s most fervent backers – and by the many Republicans in Congress who caved once again after initially opposing such a step.
The legality of Mr Trump’s manoeuver will and should certainly be challenged in the courts, and it will be, not just by rights groups standing in front of judges, but also by the many landowners who could be forced to give up their property under eminent domain rules invoked by the government.
It’s crucial to note that, though Mr Trump’s national emergency declaration is a particularly brazen move – involving both the longest shutdown in US history and a case of outright presidential blackmail to force funding from Congress – the tool of declaring a national emergency is fairly common.
In the words of a recent Atlantic headline: “In 1995, the US Declared a State of Emergency. It Never Ended.” Terrorism, according to the article, is but one of 31 ongoing national emergencies that include “everything from unrest in Burundi to the movement of vessels near Cuba.”
Just as he did with the ludicrous declaration that metal imports from European allies and Canada are a threat to the US’s national security, which allowed him to slap tariffs on competitors, Mr Trump is exploiting loopholes in the US political system in a way few had thought possible.
Though the impulses of opposition leaders such as Ms Pelosi, who told Mr Trump that Democratic presidents in the future could also use this tool to declare national emergencies regarding controversial topics such as gun violence, are understandable, Democrats should not give in to those sentiments.
Instead of playing with fire by granting potentially irresponsible presidents – regardless of party affiliation – broad abilities to declare national emergencies and skirt the will of the people’s elected representatives, Congress should take the emergency powers away or substantially limit them.
Instead of routinely complaining about presidential overreach when their party isn’t governing in the White House, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle should finally seize their opportunity to rein Mr Trump in and keep him and future presidents from taking advantage of such “emergencies” ever again.
Michael Knigge is DW’s US correspondent.