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What is Trump’s National Emergency? And Why is it Taking Billions Away from Our States?

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Originally published January 8, 2019; last updated September 22, 2019


In February, Donald Trump declared a national emergency in order to appropriate money for his border wall. This national emergency is now allowing him to take billions of dollars away from the states in order to build a wall that Trump originally claimed Mexico would pay for. If you oppose Trump’s border wall — especially if you are represented by a Republican House member or Senator — please call your members of Congress today!

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.

How did we get here? The history of Trump’s national emergency

The border wall is a stupid idea. It would cost billions of dollars, harm the environment, and would not solve any problems. Most of the migrants who come to our southern border today are asylum seekers fleeing danger in central America. They were forced to leave their home countries in order to protect themselves and their families, and a border wall does nothing to address this situation!

That’s why a two-thirds majority of Americans oppose the border wall. That’s why none of the members of Congress who actually represent a border district support the project. In late 2018-2019, the federal government shut down for 35 days because Congress — both Democrats and Republicans — refused to give Trump the money he demanded to build his wall.

After the shutdown didn’t go the way Trump wanted, he declared a national emergency in order to appropriate the money he wanted. This was an unprecedented overstep of presidential power. In the federal government, Congress is supposed to be the branch that controls the purse. The president is not supposed to be able to take money away from projects Congress has explicitly approved, in order to fund vanity pet projects of his own.

Experts and commentators from across the country blasted the move. Here’s part an editorial from the New York Times:

In a breathtaking display of executive disregard for the separation of powers, the White House is thumbing its nose at Congress, the Constitution and the will of the American people, the majority of whom oppose a border wall … Mr. Trump betrays no interest in the collateral damage wreaked by his actions.

In a rare show of unity, both the Senate and the House passed resolutions opposing Trump’s national emergency, forcing Trump to issue his first-ever veto in March. Unfortunately, in July, the Supreme Court reversed decisions from lower courts and said that Trump could start using money obtained through the national emergency to start building his border wall. That’s how we’ve gotten to where we are today.

Where is Trump getting the national emergency funds from? How will they be spent?

Trump is using is national emergency powers to divert $3.6 billion in funds earmarked for military projects all over the country in order to build the border wall. These are projects specifically approved by Congress and include things like schools for children of military families, improved roads, ambulatory care centers, and fire and rescue stations. A full list of the projects that are losing money can be found here.In late September, the Senate will be voting again to oppose Trump’s national emergency — the declaration which is allowing him to divert these funds and build his nonsensical border wall. If you oppose Trump’s border wall and the way he is taking money away from military projects, call your members of Congress at (202) 224-3121.

The dangers of a national emergency

Overall, a national emergency should not be treated lightly. The state of national emergency does not automatically go away: all 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.

In addition to the diversion of military funds and Trump’s obsession with his border wall, these are the reasons why we should not let Trump’s fake national emergency stand.

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.