Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1431, (21 - 27 February 2019)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1431, (21 - 27 February 2019)

Ahram Weekly

Trump declares national emergency

The declaration by US President Donald Trump of a national emergency to build a wall along the US border with Mexico is part of a base-pleasing strategy aimed at winning a second term, reports Khaled Dawoud


Trump declares national emergency
Trump declares national emergency

Sixteen US states on Monday filed a lawsuit challenging US President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration aimed at overcoming Democratic Party opposition in Congress to his campaign promise to build a wall along the border with Mexico.

The group of states, led by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, filed the lawsuit in the US District Court for the Northern District of California.

“We’re going to try to halt the president from violating the constitution, the separation of powers, from stealing money from Americans and states that has been allocated by Congress lawfully,” Becerra said in a television interview on Monday.

The attorneys-general from the states of Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Virginia joined California in the lawsuit.

This is the latest challenge to hit the Trump administration, which already faces a litany of lawsuits over the national emergency declaration. Over the weekend, the US Centre for Biological Diversity, the Border Network for Human Rights, which marched with Beto O’Rourke in El Paso, Texas, last week, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) all announced lawsuits.

At the core of each is the argument that Trump is circumventing Congress to fund the wall along the US-Mexico border by declaring a national emergency. “The constitution assigns Congress the power of the purse, and no prior president has ever tried to use emergency powers to fund a chosen project, particularly a permanent, large-scale domestic project such as this, against congressional will. This is obviously improper,” said Dror Ladin, staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project.

Becerra argued that the states had standing to challenge Trump because money appropriated to them might be at risk. “If the president is essentially stealing money that’s been allocated to go to the various states for various purposes but no longer will, we’re being harmed, our people are being harmed,” he said.

The wave of lawsuits was expected, though fighting them in court will likely be difficult, according to legal experts. The US National Emergencies Act allows the president to declare a national emergency and unlock a stash of funds by invoking a certain statutory authority. The president also has wide discretion over what constitutes a national emergency.

As a result, legal experts argue that fighting the declaration on the basis of the emergency itself could be difficult. The other question is whether the statute Trump has invoked, which in this case requires the use of the armed forces, can be used to fund the wall.

Under the declaration, the administration will tap $2.5 billion of military narcotics funding and $3.6 billion in military construction funding. Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said he would start studying which projects to pull the money from and determine whether border barriers are necessary to support the use of the armed forces.

It is not just lawsuits that the administration has to face, but also the possibility of a joint resolution by House Democrats to terminate the declaration. The resolution would need to be voted on by the House and then the Senate, before heading to the president’s desk.

On Sunday, White House adviser Stephen Miller indicated that Trump would cast the first veto of his presidency if lawmakers tried to terminate the declaration.

National emergencies in the US can last for one year and then terminate unless the president renews the declaration 90 days in advance, said Robert Chesney, who served in the US Justice Department and now teaches at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.

Every six months, Congress can consider whether to put forward a joint resolution to terminate the emergency.

According to the US Brennan Center, there were 58 national emergencies in the US between 1978 and 2018. Of those, 31 are still in effect today.

Trump’s bold move not only aimed at avoiding a second government shutdown in the US as the deadline to agree on budget details approached on 15 February, but more importantly also aimed to maintain his reputation as a president who keeps his campaign promises, topped with building a wall along the border with Mexico.

His decision to fund his border wall through the emergency declaration represents one of the boldest grabs for presidential authority in generations and caps what is now a lengthening record of contempt for the regular political order in the US, according to observers.

Trump’s explanation for choosing a national emergency last week to build his wall might have undermined his legal case for bypassing Congress in what may be a new effort by the courts, one of the few roadblocks to Trump during his first two years in office, to frustrate the president.

But his remarks were revealing about a presidency rooted as much in personal gratification and a desire to spark outrage as in a long-term ideological programme. “I wanted to do it faster. 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,” Trump said on Friday.

Now that most of the restraining influences, such as James Mattis, the former defense secretary, or Rex Tillerson, the ex-secretary of state, have left the administration, there are few internal limitations on Trump. “Donald Trump doesn’t have a containment vessel,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University. “It is a perfect storm for the presidency.”

For Trump’s critics, America is now heading down a dangerously autocratic path: It hardly seems likely that the president, with a taste for going it alone on a national emergency, will rein himself in. Yet the fact that Trump, despite never passing a 50 per cent approval rating in most polls, remains a viable political force and may have a route to re-election suggests that a substantial block of Americans like what they see.

To Trump voters in the US, the president is hacking away at a political system and governing structure that they have come to believe does not represent them after long years of economic hardship and endless foreign wars.

Trump’s complaints that foreign nations are bleeding the US dry are popular among voters tired of foreign engagements, a feeling that is also traceable in the Democratic Party base as the 2020 campaign begins.

Trump’s relentless base-pleasing strategy has intimidated his fellow Republicans, further loosening checks on a presidency that until recently benefitted from a pliant Congress dominated by the Republican Party.

Republicans like Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina appear to have concluded that the way to avoid a fight in the primaries is to embrace Trump, which is testimony to the power of the president with his base.

“When the leader says do something, there’s become a tendency to do it,” former Ohio governor John Kasich told the TV news channel CNN on Monday. “There has been more allegiance to the leader than I am sort of used to,” the Ohio Republican said. “When I was in Congress there were times when we just told the leadership, ‘we don’t agree with you and we are going to do what we have to do. ’”

However, it is still likely that some Republicans will peel away from the president when a resolution to terminate his state of emergency comes up in both chambers of Congress, though few observers predict a veto-proof majority.

Relying exclusively on a vocal, if engaged, minority will pose complications for Trump’s re-election hopes. And the fact that there will be a debate on the state of emergency suggests that from now on, with Democrats running the House, Trump will not have things all his own way, especially as a new oversight operation by committee chairs gears up.

“We have got to keep in mind that not every institution has been Trumpified,” said Naftali. “The American people went to the polls in November, and they voted in a Democratic majority in the House. That is a big deal.”

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