It was a long time ago. It was Tuesday, October 8, 2002. It was the second President Bush. And it was a speech about a real emergency:
Tonight I want to take a few minutes to discuss a grave threat to peace and America’s determination to lead the world in confronting that threat. The threat comes from Iraq. It arises directly from the Iraqi regime’s own actions, its history of aggression and its drive toward an arsenal of terror.
That was Bush’s address to the nation about a situation where we had to do something. All the critics all around the world were wrong. The guy DID have weapons of mass destruction, and would kill us all, or Americans had to assume he did, and would:
America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof – the smoking gun – that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.
And then George Bush explained that we would build a giant wall to keep Saddam Hussein out. No, wait, that wasn’t it. We’d go over there and “remove” that guy – it would be a war, not a wall. And that evening, in Cincinnati, George Bush screwed things up for all successive presidents. There was a problem, not an emergency. And there were no weapons of mass destruction. The next president who said things were dire and dangerous and could be the end of everything we know and love, and so we must do this and then that and then that other thing, right now, might be wrong, and now the odds were that he probably was wrong. Few trust politicians. Now no one did. Something else might be going on.
Something else was going on, and although Donald Trump is no George Bush, this is happening again, as the Washington Post’s Robert Costa and Philip Rucker report here:
Trump administration officials made an urgent case Monday that the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border has reached a crisis level, laying the groundwork for President Trump to possibly declare a national emergency that would empower him to construct a border wall without congressional approval.
With the federal government partially shut down amid his stalemate with Congress, Trump will attempt to bolster the administration’s position Tuesday by delivering a prime-time televised address to the nation from the Oval Office – the first of his presidency. He will then travel Thursday to visit the nation’s southern border.
The parallel is clear:
“There is a humanitarian and national security crisis,” Vice President Pence told reporters Monday, a line that he and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen repeated several times. Pence also said he expected attempted crossings by undocumented migrants to “dramatically increase” as winter gives way to spring.
Many immigration experts, however, have said the Trump administration is exaggerating the security threat at the border and amplifying data in misleading ways or with outright falsehoods.
This is the same dispute as before – the threat is dire – the threat is manageable – and the dancing begins:
Vexed by Democrats’ refusal to yield to his demand for $5.7 billion for wall funding, Trump increasingly views a national emergency declaration as a viable, if risky, way for him to build a portion of his long-promised barrier, according to senior administration officials.
Although Trump has made “no decision” about a declaration, Pence said, lawyers in the White House Counsel’s Office are working to determine the president’s options and prepare for any possible legal obstacles.
That won’t be easy:
Such a move would be a fraught act of brinkmanship at the dawn of a newly divided government, sparking a firestorm with House Democrats and certain challenges in federal courts. But Trump believes forcing a drastic reckoning by executive action may be necessary given the Democratic resistance and the wall’s symbolic power for his core voters, officials said.
The idea is to bypass Congress and spend money they said was for other things, because he knows best and they don’t, which wasn’t well-received:
“We will oppose any effort by the president to make himself a king and a tyrant,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Monday during a visit to the border. “The president has no authority to usurp Congress’s power of the purse.”
That’s mostly right, and Trump is playing with fire:
Jeh C. Johnson, who served in the Obama administration as secretary of homeland security and general counsel of the Defense Department, said the laws Trump could invoke with his national emergency declaration are designed to authorize military construction projects during wartime. He said using them for a border wall could curtail presidential powers in the years to come as lawmakers react to Trump and work to constrain him.
“The danger of using an authority like this and stretching it beyond its intended use is that Congress could then take it away, and it could not be used in situations where it’s really needed,” Johnson said.
And he has lost the legal battle already:
Robert F. Bauer, a White House counsel under President Barack Obama, said Trump would be poorly positioned to defend such an action in federal courts, in part because his statements about the wall have been contradictory and have contained provable falsehoods.
“He has fatally compromised his ability to defend this,” Bauer said. “He has so politicized the issue, and he has been so reckless in his presentation of what the stakes are that he walks into court with two strikes against him, the ball about to break over the plate, and he’s swinging too late.”
But he doesn’t know that:
Trump could theoretically use the National Emergencies Act of 1976 to declare an emergency, activating executive authorities including the reprogramming of some Defense Department funds.
Trump first mentioned the possibility of declaring a national emergency Friday, telling reporters in the Rose Garden: “I may do it. We can call a national emergency and build it very quickly. It’s another way of doing it.”
In private conversations with advisers at a Sunday senior staff retreat at Camp David and back at the White House, Trump said he may soon declare a national emergency unless he is able to secure funds from Congress to build a wall, according to two officials involved in those discussions.
Trump’s leading allies on the right, such as Fox News host and presidential confidant Sean Hannity, have spoken encouragingly about the prospect and emboldened Trump in recent days, officials said.
They say go for it. Terrorists and murderers and drugs and thugs are pouring across our border – waves of these people – every hour. This is an emergency. The president can do anything at all in an emergency, but then things got odd:
U.S. Customs and Border Protection encountered only six immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico border in the first half of fiscal year 2018 whose names were on a federal government list of known or suspected terrorists, according to CBP data as of May 2018 obtained by NBC News.
The low number contradicts statements by Trump administration officials, including White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, who said Friday that CBP stopped nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists from crossing the southern border in fiscal year 2018.
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen told reporters on Monday the exact number, which NBC News is first to report, was classified but that she was working on making it public. The data was provided to Congress in May 2018.
Overall, 41 people on the Terrorist Screening Database were encountered at the southern border from Oct. 1, 2017, to March 31, 2018, but 35 of them were U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents. Six were classified as non-U.S. persons.
This is a problem, not an emergency:
On the northern border, CBP stopped 91 people listed in the database, including 41 who were not American citizens or residents.
Border patrol agents, separate from CBP officers, stopped five immigrants from the database between legal ports of entry over the same time period, but it was unclear from the data which ones were stopped at the northern border versus the southern border.
The facts here are public record, which made this even odder:
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Sunday continued to push the Trump administration’s false claims that terrorists pour into the U.S. across the border with Mexico. But Fox News’ Chris Wallace wasn’t having it.
Sanders had a heated exchange with the host of “Fox News Sunday” as she discussed President Donald Trump’s threat to continue the partial government shutdown if his demand for $5 billion to fund a U.S.-Mexico border wall isn’t met by Democrats.
“Let’s talk about the wall,” Wallace said. “The president talks about terrorists potentially coming across the border.”
And then Fox News turned on her:
Wallace then showed a clip of Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen stating Friday that “over 3,000 special interest aliens” trying to enter the U.S. from the southern border had been stopped by Border Patrol agents.
“But special interest aliens are just people who have come from countries that have ever produced a terrorist, they’re not terrorists themselves,” Wallace said. He also cited State Department reports that found “no credible evidence of any terrorist coming across the border from Mexico.”
Sanders responded, “We know that roughly nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists come into our country illegally, and we know that our most vulnerable point of entry is at our southern border.”
Wallace, ready to pounce, interrupted Sanders with a blistering fact-check.
“Wait, wait, ’cause I know the statistic,” he said. “I didn’t know if you were going to use it, but I studied up on this. Do you know where those 4,000 people come or where they’re captured? Airports.”
At that point she seems to begin chanting that what she had first said was true, really true, but it doesn’t matter. Trump will give his “mushroom cloud” speech. He has to do that:
President Trump unleashed an offensive on Monday to persuade Americans that a “humanitarian and security crisis” on the southern border must be addressed before a government shutdown can end, announcing a prime-time address for Tuesday and a trip to the border later in the week.
Vice President Mike Pence briefed reporters on the status of negotiations in a hastily arranged session, part of an orchestrated effort to sway balking Democrats who say the government should reopen while they wrangle over Mr. Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to begin his border wall.
The shutdown, heading into Day 18, has become a critical test for Mr. Trump, who campaigned as a master negotiator and deal maker but so far has achieved virtually no agreements with Democrats. Already, it is the second-longest breakdown in government funding in the nation’s history, affecting about 800,000 federal workers, many of whom will miss their first paycheck this week. The president has offered little to his Democratic adversaries to lure them to the table.
Now, he will try to use a broad-based public appeal to raise the pressure.
That’s the plan, and there’s the opposition:
Senate Democrats, for their part, were moving to halt legislation to pressure Republicans to reopen the government, starting Tuesday. And late Monday, the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate released a joint statement demanding equal television time.
“Democrats must immediately be given equal airtime,” said the leaders, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York. They said that “if his past statements are any indication,” Mr. Trump’s address “will be full of malice and misinformation.”
The vice president, while conceding that no progress was made in weekend negotiations with senior Democratic staff members, said Democrats “did not dispute our facts” about what he called a “humanitarian and security crisis.” Democrats and immigration advocates have argued that the administration has vastly overstated the scope of the border situation.
Yeah, they did dispute the facts, and they’re not the ones in trouble:
The administration’s credibility continues to suffer, as Democrats call out Mr. Trump for falsehoods about the crisis, such as his assertion that former presidents had told him privately that they should have built the wall. On Monday, former President Jimmy Carter joined the list of presidents who said they had never discussed a border wall with Mr. Trump.
With talks to end the shutdown at a standstill, Mr. Pence said the president had directed the Office of Management and Budget to take steps to “mitigate” its effects, including an order to the Internal Revenue Service to issue tax refunds. Under previous shutdown plans – and interpretations of federal law – the IRS was prohibited from dispensing tax refunds when Congress had not approved money to fund the Treasury Department, as is the case now.
They’ll break the law there, but that’s the least of their worries:
On Capitol Hill, Democrats tried to use leverage of their own to force Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, to come to the table and pressure Mr. Trump. On Monday, Democrats said they would vote against advancing a package of bipartisan Middle East policy bills slated for consideration this week unless Republicans allowed a vote on bills to reopen shuttered federal departments already passed by the House – a decision that could scuttle its prospects if Democrats stick together.
Senate Democrats did not indicate whether they are ready to block other bills, but their position raised the prospect that a significant portion of the chamber’s work could halt until the Senate gets to vote to reopen the parts of the government now closed.
Trump is trapped now, and David Leonhardt comments on that:
Over the weekend, I published a column making the case that Trump deserved to be removed from office — that he has violated both federal law and his constitutional oath, that he is manifestly unfit to be president and that his continued tenure is a danger to the country. Of course, regardless of these dangers or his sins, he will remain in office so long as congressional Republicans want him there. And I know that many people, from across the ideological spectrum, believe that Trump’s standing with Republicans remains secure.
But that might be wrong:
I think he is more vulnerable than many people realize.
First, there are the political risks that his current standing creates for other Republicans. It’s true that his approval rating has been notably stable, around 40 percent. It’s also notably weak. Thus the Republican whupping in the midterms…
Second, Trump’s political fortunes are more likely to deteriorate than improve this year. The economy isn’t likely to get a lot stronger. The various investigations aren’t going away. And Trump will surely commit more unforced errors, like the government shutdown. “It’s still difficult to predict how all this ends,” the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein wrote on Friday, about the shutdown. “But it’s hard to see it ending well for Republicans.”
Third, Republican support for Trump may remain broad, but it’s shallow. Trump has already faced far more intra-party criticism than most presidents. Since the midterms, it seems to be growing. Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, resigned and criticized Trump while doing so. Mitt Romney entered the Senate by once again turning against Trump. Collins and Gardner have started grumbling about the shutdown.
As Republicans begin looking nervously to 2020, their willingness to break with Trump may increase. For some of them, their political survival may depend on breaking with him. If that happens, it’s quite possible that his approval rating will begin to drift below 40 percent – and the bad news will then feed on itself.
And that may be the actual emergency here:
Democrats could overreach, by quickly impeaching Trump and thereby uniting Republicans. Or Trump could end up navigating the next few months surprisingly well. But that’s not the mostly likely scenario.
The normal rules of politics really do apply to Trump. He won a shocking victory in 2016, and his opponents have lacked confidence ever since. They should no longer lack it.
It may be that conditions have changed:
Donald Trump still has great power as the president of the United States. But as presidents go, he is very weak. His opponents – Democrats, independents and Republicans who understand the damage he is doing to the country – should be feeling energized.
That’s why Trump has to declare a national emergency, or why he might just go big and declare martial law and suspend the Constitution, and then have our troops build the wall and be done with all the pesky losers who ask stupid questions and say what the law is and all the rest. That’s the real emergency for him. And that’s the real emergency for everyone else too. He might just bypass us all.