Tuesday evening, President Trump plans to tell the nation that the situation at the southern border is so extraordinarily bad, the only solution is to do something extraordinarily bad. He will be wrong on both counts.
The president has already taken one extreme step, forcing some 830,000 federal workers to work without pay or be furloughed because Congress wouldn’t accede to his petulant demand to spend billions of dollars on a bigger, longer wall along the border. In effect, Trump has taken nine federal departments and dozens of federal agencies hostage until he can force his will on the branch of government that, under the Constitution, holds the federal purse strings.
It’s not the first time that part of the federal government has shut down over a funding dispute between Congress and the White House; there were eight brief shutdowns during President Reagan’s two terms, most of them over fiscal matters. But Trump is now talking about upping the stakes to a degree never seen before — by declaring a “national emergency” and then claiming (perhaps spuriously) the power to fund construction of the wall that Congress refuses to build.
That would be a reckless and arrogant expansion of executive authority, and Trump should abandon any thought of it. Nor should he prolong the shutdown to try to force Congress to fund a wall that is rich in exclusionary symbolism but unlikely to have much effect on illegal immigration and drug smuggling.
The president laid out a false premise Monday when he tweeted his plan to address the nation about “the Humanitarian and National Security crisis on our Southern Border.” There is no national security crisis — thousands of would-be immigrants seeking asylum do not constitute an invading army, and Trump has never backed up his assertions that the group is rife with terrorists. And while there is a humanitarian crisis, it’s one Trump could solve himself by expanding the nation’s capacity to handle asylum requests, rather than forcing migrants to spend weeks in squalid camps near ports of entry. It’s not as if the border is being overrun — detentions last year were roughly 75% lower than they were in 2000. Perhaps Trump will see that for himself when he visits the border Thursday.
Yet without a so-called emergency, Trump has no justification for clinging to his foolish campaign promise to build a wall at Mexico’s expense. Nor does he have a way of overriding Congress’ spending decisions and making it happen.
The president has broad power to declare emergencies to address natural disasters, epidemics and other exigencies. The fight over the wall, however, is no such thing. It’s an easily foreseen political battle between Trump and Congress — congressional Democrats in particular. Trump’s fixation on the wall has pinned him in a corner. He shouldn’t abuse the limits of his authority to engineer a way out.