There was no way to shrug it off. This was no way to say that this was subtle and clever and in a few days, or weeks, or months, everyone would agree that this man was actually a genius. And there was no way to say this was simply “authentic” and all those who thought this was ignorant nonsense are prissy elitists. This was just embarrassing. The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson and Toluse Olorunnipa captured the event that confused and embarrassed everyone:
President Trump stood without a teleprompter Friday morning in the White House Rose Garden – staring out at reporters, members of his administration and grieving women whose relatives were killed by undocumented immigrants – and declared a national emergency along the southern border.
But instead of making a forceful case to the public for his decision to circumvent Congress, the president casually acknowledged: “I could do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn’t need to do this. But I’d rather do it much faster.”
In that moment, Trump undercut his administration’s attempt to justify declaring a national emergency.
This man shouldn’t wing it but that is what this man loves to do:
He jumped from one topic to another in short, seething sentences aimed at defending his presidency and demanding credit for what he has accomplished, even in the face of what some consider a failure to deliver on a key campaign promise – building a border wall.
For just under an hour, Americans were allowed to witness Trump’s intimate thought process as he reacted publicly to not getting his way and pondered the power of his presidency.
He raged and mused. He rambled. He started out in China. And then he was suddenly somewhere else. The only thing to do was to sit back and watch:
“We have a large team of very talented people in China,” said the president, dressed in an overcoat. “We’ve had a negotiation going on for about two days. It’s going extremely well. Who knows what that means, because it only matters if we get it done.”
He claimed that tariffs have resulted in “billions of dollars pouring into our treasury,” that he has strengthened the trading relationship with Britain, that the United States has successfully eradicated the Islamic State in Syria and that his meeting with North Korea’s leader last year has led to “no more rockets going up, no more missiles going up, no more testing of nuclear. Got back our remains… and we got back our hostages.”
Then he took a moment to sum up what he had just rattled off.
“A lot of positive things are going on,” Trump said.
Five minutes into his remarks, Trump got to the border and declared that he would increase security “one way or the other.”
So he did get around to his topic, but that too was odd:
Trump bounced between claiming that there is a crisis at the border and taking credit for the “very successful” actions he has already taken.
“We have to do it – not because it was a campaign promise, which it is,” Trump said. “It was one of many, by the way, not my only one.”
He veered off to reflect on how the economies of other countries are “doing terribly, and we’re doing phenomenally,” then returned to the border to promise to stop the “tremendous amounts of drugs flowing into our country.” Trump continued to claim that drug and human trafficking most often happen at unguarded parts of the border, not at ports of entry, contradicting experts who have studied the issue.
“It’s wrong. It’s wrong. It’s just a lie. It’s all a lie,” he said. “They say walls don’t work. Walls work, 100 percent.”
At that point he was talking to himself, or chanting an arcane incantation, but he was keeping it simple:
Trump introduced the women sitting before him, “angel moms” whose relatives were killed by immigrants in the country illegally – but then he returned to the topic of presidential power.
Trump explained how China gives drug dealers the death penalty, seeming to praise the idea even though just 10 days earlier he praised bipartisan attempts at criminal justice reform and declared that “America is a nation that believes in redemption.”
That keeps it simple. Build a giant wall. Execute more people. That solves everything, and then whine that no one is being fair about that:
Trump again compared himself with previous presidents and insisted that “nobody’s done the job that we’ve ever done” and that if he weren’t elected, “this economy would be down the tubes.” He scoffed at those who say Obama should receive at least some of the credit for today’s booming economy. With the economy “through the roof,” Trump claimed that more immigrants want to come into the country illegally, hence the need for the wall.
And then say you’ve won it all:
Trump said he expects his emergency order to be challenged in court, just as he was challenged when he tried early in his presidency to ban travelers from several majority-Muslim countries. He insists he won that battle, even though he said others claim he lost.
“We will then be sued, and they will sue us in the 9th Circuit, even though it shouldn’t be there, and we will possibly get a bad ruling, and then we’ll get another bad ruling, and then we’ll end up in the Supreme Court, and hopefully we’ll get a fair shake and we’ll win in the Supreme Court,” Trump said, his voice dramatically rising and falling to emphasize his view of the ridiculousness of the U.S. court system.
He’s got this. It’s HIS Supreme Court now. They’ll rule for him. They always will now. That’s why he was sneering. He’s won already, and then things shifted:
Twenty-four minutes into his remarks, Trump began to take questions from reporters. He defended diverting money from the defense budget, saying that it is “a very, very small amount” and that the original funding priorities “didn’t sound too important to me.”
Once again, generals know nothing about anything, and he knows everything about anything and everything, but then there was this:
When pressed to explain the source of the data he uses to make policy decisions, Trump grew prickly.
When a reporter noted that government data shows border crossings at a near-record low, Trump replied, “It’s still massive numbers of crossings.”
When the reporter countered that data shows that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at lower levels than native-born Americans, Trump deemed the question “fake.”
When another reporter pressed the president to explain “where you get your numbers,” the president told that reporter to “sit down.”
“I get my numbers from a lot of sources, like Homeland Security, primarily, and the numbers that I have from Homeland Security are a disaster,” Trump said.
The reporter followed up: “So your own government’s stats are wrong?”
“No, no,” Trump said. “I use many stats. I use many stats.”
Which ones? Who knows? The man was musing in the land of delusion:
Trump recounted receiving “the most beautiful copy of a letter” that he said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent to “a thing called the Nobel Prize” – even though Abe has not publicly mentioned anything about this subject, while South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said that Trump should receive the peace prize.
“I’ll probably never get it, but that’s okay,” Trump said. “They gave it to Obama. He didn’t even know what he got it for. He was there for about 15 seconds and he got the Nobel Prize.”
Trump said that he has done things the Obama administration “couldn’t have done… probably wouldn’t have done… didn’t have the capability to do.” He added, without providing any evidence or explanation, that he “stopped the slaughter of perhaps 3 million people” in Syria.
“We do a lot of good work,” Trump said. “This administration does a tremendous job, and we don’t get credit for it.”
What good work? What tremendous job? That nation is still waiting, and then it was over:
Trump then thanked his audience. He pointed out his new attorney general, William P. Barr, offering these words of encouragement: “Great luck and speed and enjoy your life.”
He thanked everyone again and walked away.
But he couldn’t walk away from the mess he had just made:
The Constitution is filled with ambiguities. But it has a few commands the framers wanted crystal clear. The president is commander in chief. Supreme Court justices have life terms.
And, it states, “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”
Article I, section 9, clause 7 is constitutional bedrock, popularly known as “the power of the purse.” James Madison called it “a weapon” arming “the immediate representatives of the people” against the sweeping powers of the president.
But it’s been weakened over the years, often with the collusion of Congress, which enacts flexible spending laws, and by the courts, in their silence.
President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to build a wall on the southern border “shines the brightest of lights on how much power Congress has given away,” tweeted Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard Law School professor and former assistant attorney general under President George W. Bush, “and how much extraordinary power presidents have amassed.”
There is that, but Noah Rothman notes how frustrated Trump had to have been:
He staked his reputation on constructing a wall along the southern border, and he’s not going to get one. Republicans in Congress had two years to appropriate the $25 billion Trump initially sought for a contiguous partition along the border, and they passed on it at every available opportunity. Trump transformed the 2018 midterm elections into a referendum on the notion that a humanitarian disaster was unfolding at the border and the wall was the only answer. Voters were not convinced.
Having lost face at the polls, Trump sought to demonstrate who’s still the boss by demanding tribute from ascendant Democrats – a mere $5.7 billion, not for a wall per se, but for “steel slats” along a few miles of the border. He didn’t get it. Indeed, Trump will sign a compromise that appropriates only $1.375 billion for fencing and border-security enhancements – less than what the GOP-led Congress was prepared to allocate at the end of 2018. That compromise bill also imposes a 17 percent reduction on the number of beds available in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities, which would be an irresponsible thing for the president to sign amid a genuine immigration crisis.
Amid this unambiguous series of defeats, Trump resolved to get his border-wall funding by other means…
And now that’s falling apart:
Congressional Democrats aren’t even being coy about their desire to expand on this precedent when their party regains control of the White House. “Want to talk about a national emergency?” asked Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “The epidemic of gun violence in America. That’s a national emergency.” There is no shortage of Democrats who are similarly convinced that climate change also represents an existential crisis, to say nothing of a national emergency. Many have endorsed draconian anti-industrial policies that are unlikely to pass in Congress as the only rational remedy to the crisis. The next president will undoubtedly face pressure from his or her core constituents to apply the precedent Trump is setting to their domestic policy priorities.
And then there’s this:
Maybe the most pernicious effect of the president’s extraordinary maneuver here is how he will drag complacent Republicans along with him into the abyss. Once invoked, 50 U.S. Code § 1622 on national emergencies sets into motion a series of events, including an almost immediate vote by the House of Representatives ratifying the president’s decision. The House will certainly reject Trump’s national-emergency declaration, sending that motion to the Senate, where it cannot be tabled. And that GOP-controlled chamber will be compelled to support Trump’s transparently political debasing of constitutional norms, not because of support for Trump, but because of pressure from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
They’ll look like cowards, loyal cowards, but cowards nonetheless, and David Frum adds this:
The declaration of a state of emergency is heading almost immediately to court. Construction could be enjoined while the litigation proceeds. Trump could lose. Yes, that would give him somebody to blame in 2020. Liberal judges stopped the wall. But a loss with an excuse remains a loss.
And there’s this:
By declaring an emergency, the president gains legal authority to move around some military-construction funds, reportedly about $3.6 billion. But that money has to come from somewhere, and where it comes from is other projects. “That must have been really tough. To lose. To be a loser.” Those were Trump’s mocking words to Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, as quoted in his new book. He’ll have to wear them himself if the courts stop his wall.
And there’s this:
The legal route imposes another risk. Few voters will understand the limits on the emergency powers Trump has just invoked. The invocation will sound to many like final confirmation that Trump aspires to dictatorship. If the courts stop him, he will look like a defeated dictator – dangerous but weakened.
But the problems here are mainly political:
The emergency powers Trump has proclaimed allow him to reshuffle money between military-construction envelopes. Every additional dollar he devotes to the border is a dollar taken from another project already approved by Congress. Every one of those projects has patrons and sponsors. And because most military contracting goes to red states, most of the reshuffled dollars will be removed from red states.
Among the projects at risk: a $32 million vehicle-maintenance shop in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. I have no idea whether this project is supremely necessary or a pork-barrel boondoggle. But I bet Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell strongly believes it is the former. What will Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina – up for reelection in 2020 – think if Trump pulls funds from the approved but not yet contracted project for a new aircraft hangar at the Marine Corps’ air station in his state?
There are hundreds of such projects. Trump hasn’t solved everything for himself. He’s made a bigger mess for himself.
He’s made a bigger mess for everyone, as David French notes here:
If you look at the plain language and clear intent of the relevant statutes, they do not permit Trump to defy Congress and build his wall. He knows it. Congress knows it. His own lawyers know it… Even under the most generous statute, only during a “national emergency” that “may require” the use of the military may the president allocate funds for “authorized” construction projects that are “essential to the national defense.”
That’s the problem with the 1976 Emergency Powers Act:
The fundamental purpose of the act was to restrain presidential power, not to enable a president to act without Congress simply because Congress won’t do what he wants.
Yes, presidents abuse the law anyway. And Congress refuses to stop them. And each past abuse is used to justify future abuses. We live under 28 separate states of emergency now, with one dating back to the Iranian hostage crisis. So what’s one more abuse in 2019?
Well, how about if the abuse requires you to gut the meaning of several statutes? For example, how about the assertion that the emergency on the border “may require” the use of the military? Don’t forget, in the United States, border security along a border with an allied nation is a civilian mission. It’s a mission managed by the civilian Department of Homeland Security. Border security has been enhanced in recent years by the addition of new civilian Border Patrol officers and the construction of civilian structures, not military fortifications.
Getting around that will be hard:
The legal argument in support of the notion that constructing a border wall is “essential to the national defense” boils down primarily to the naked assertion that, well, courts won’t dare question the president. But words still have meaning. We are not in a state of declared war with Mexico. There is no invading army. Illegal-immigrant crime, as tragic as it is, isn’t an act of war. It would be strange indeed to argue that a border fence with an allied country is “essential to the national defense” when the border-security mission by statute isn’t even a military mission.
French says it’s time to be honest about what is going on here:
Vanishingly few people in good faith believe that any of these statutes were intended to empower the construction of Trump’s promised new wall. It’s a strain to argue that they even encompass upgrades to existing walls. Not even the Trump administration believes they were intended to empower the president to build the wall. Has Trump previously sought appropriation from Congress as a mere matter of professional courtesy?
No, this is an attempted abuse of the constitutional order that is justified mainly by the existence of previous successful abuses of the constitutional order. Each abuse builds on the next; hypocrisy builds on hypocrisy. The only clear winner is the imperial presidency. The loser is our constitutional republic. And each Trump fan cheering his raw power grab will be a furious partisan when the next Democratic president builds on Trump’s abuse.
Congratulations, partisans. You claim you’re saving our country. In reality, you’re wrecking our constitution.
So it’s time for some simple solutions to this problem:
Top Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee are opening an “immediate investigation” into President Trump’s move Friday morning to declare a national emergency to fund the construction of a border wall.
In a letter to Trump on Friday afternoon, the Democrats requested that he make available to them individuals involved in the decision – including White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and officials at the Department of Justice – for “a hearing in the coming days.” The Democrats are also seeking a slew of documents related to the decision-making process.
In short, explain what the hell you were thinking. Explain that in a televised open hearing. Own it. Be proud of it. Does it solve everything?
No? Okay. So stop it. Stop it right now.