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What is a National Emergency? And Why Trump’s Threat to Declare One is a Racist Political Stunt


Originally published January 8, 2019

According to reports, Donald Trump may soon use the power of the White House to launch a racist political stunt dressed up as a national emergency. As the government shutdown grinds on, advocates fear that Trump will announce a national emergency and plans to appropriate Department of Defense funds to build his border wall — which would be a circumvention of Congressional refusal to fund the wall. Such a move would be illegal, ignorant of the Constitution, and against the will of a majority of Americans. Trump’s comments, tweets, and speeches on immigration have been one big, continuous lie — and commentators have noted that immigration is the subject he most frequently lies about.

Any attempt to divert funds to the wall via national emergency would force U.S. taxpayers to fund his project — not Mexico as Trump originally promised. Luckily, experts have said that such a move would be highly illegal.

“Thankfully, the United States Constitution does not give the president emergency powers, and it has no clause that allows the president to suspend the Constitution when he perceives an emergency,” wrote Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law.  

Chemerinsky further explained that the “Constitution is clear that Congress controls the power of the purse and must approve the spending of all federal money. No exception to this is mentioned in the Constitution or has ever been recognized by the courts.”

Examples of past national emergencies

Over the last several decades, both Democratic and Republican presidents have declared national emergencies. But unlike Trump, they sought to respond to real threats — and didn’t seek to hijack the process for their own aims. Here are four times when past presidents declared national emergencies:

  • In 1979 when 52 U.S. citizens were held hostage in Iran, President Jimmy Carter declared a national emergency in order to freeze Iranian assets and threaten their economic activity.
  • Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush declared a national emergency.
  • In 2008, President Bush again declared a national emergency in response to the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons in North Korea.
  • In 2015, in response to cyber-attacks from foreign nations, President Barack Obama declared a national emergency.

Compared to these actual threats, a national emergency declared by Trump for the purpose of building a wall would be a farce. Let’s remember: the border wall, originally, was a memory device and a racist rally chant used to remind Trump to talk about immigration during his stump speech. It is not a response to actual border conditions.

The dangers of a national emergency

The declaration of a national emergency should not be treated lightly. The state of national emergency does not automatically go away: are of the national emergencies listed above are still active today, including the one issued by Carter in 1979. In fact, we are still under 28 different national emergencies.

And, national emergencies allow presidents to set aside many of the limits on their authority. In her recent article for the Atlantic,  “What the President Could Do If He Declares a State of Emergency,” Elizabeth Goitein outlines a terrifying picture of the possible presidential powers. Under the National Emergencies Act, Trump would have to outline the specific powers he wants to invoke, but theoretically he could do everything from seize control of the internet, deploy troops domestically, and economically sanction Americans. As Goitein warned, the president’s emergency powers are “ripe for abuse,” especially for a president who may not share the same commitment to liberal democracy as previous presidents.

As Andrea Pitzer, author of “One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps,” warned in a Washington Post op-ed:

Totalitarianism rises out of a process, not a single event. Declaring a state of exception in response to a political impasse would be a big step toward degrading an already vulnerable system. A fake emergency could trigger a real catastrophe — one that a split Congress would be unlikely to resolve and that a Supreme Court sympathetic to an imperial presidency might even worsen.