• Ryan O'Connell

Trump Declares War on The Constitution

February 15, 2019

Donald Trump has plunged us into a profound constitutional crisis by launching a direct assault on our government’s balance of powers. Trump has declared a bogus national emergency, based on a litany of false assertions, to justify an end-run around Congress after it refused to appropriate $5.7 billion for his wall. If Trump’s gambit succeeds, he will severely undermine, if not destroy, Congress’ power of the purse and its ability to serve as a check on the executive branch.

If Trump prevails, we’ll be well on our way to one-man rule, and you can probably kiss our democracy good-bye. This is the gravest threat to our system of government since the Watergate crisis. Unfortunately, many Republican congressional leaders don’t seem inclined to fight Trump on this key issue.

Presidents have often invoked their emergency powers—59 times since the National Emergencies Act was passed in 1976. Previous leaders have used the law to deal with diplomatic or military challenges, such as by freezing another government’s assets. The White House today cited only two examples of presidents using the Act to spend money without legislative approval. However, George H.W. Bush was preparing for the Gulf War after Iraq invaded Bahrain and George W. Bush was responding to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Neither president was taking measures that Congress had opposed.

Unlike other presidents, Trump is using this extraordinary power to defy Congress’ explicit decision not to fund a particular project. If he succeeds, Congress could lose control of the appropriations process and its main source of leverage over the White House.

What is terrifying is that Trump might get away with this blatant power grab. The Act of 1976 doesn’t define an “emergency”, leaving that to a president’s discretion. Trump intends to reallocate money appropriated for military construction projects, which is an area where Congress has allocated emergency powers to a president under the Act.

Trump Undercuts His Case

The Democrats have some possible ways to block Trump’s move to “shred the Constitution”, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer said in a joint statement. However, there is no guarantee of success, either in Congress or the courts. Still, if Congress doesn’t stop Trump, and the Democrats resort to a legal challenge, there is a ray of hope, even with the current Supreme Court.

Trump undermined his own rationale for declaring an emergency, by saying during his press conference, “I didn’t need to do this, but I’d rather do it faster. I want to get it done faster, that’s all.”

That is an obvious contradiction, of course. The situation is either a time-sensitive crisis, requiring immediate action, or it’s not. Trump’s statement might help a court find that an “emergency” did not exist and the president misused the statute.

Trump could also face trouble in the courts if judges chose to consider the “facts” the administration is using to justify the emergency declaration. In his announcement today, Trump did not provide any new information that would support his claims that the country faces an “invasion” or an imminent crisis. The president repeated various false allegations that are contradicted by statements and findings from government agencies.

A Step Toward Autocracy

It is troubling that Trump chose to wage war with Congress on this issue. He has burned his bridges with the Democrats, who have no reason now to cooperate with him on any issue. A normal president would have accepted Congress’ decision not to fund the wall….and then used it to hammer the Democrats in the 2020 campaign. A typical leader would have told his supporters that he had to respect the legislative process, particularly after the longest government shutdown ever, and then he would have moved on.

But perhaps Trump sensed, correctly, that the far-right wing of the Republican Party, the Ann Coulters of the world, don’t care about long-established democratic traditions. For Trump, the real emergency is his fear that his base may desert him in 2020 if he doesn’t hang tough now…the Constitution be damned.

Trump’s behavior is also disturbing because he reportedly rejected the advice of Sen. Mitch McConnell and Jared Kushner not to declare an emergency. In addition, Trump ignored polls indicating that 65% of voters oppose an emergency declaration. Trump truly seems to believe that “I alone can fix it”. The president apparently thinks he doesn’t need to heed his ever-smaller circle of advisers or public opinion.

Up until now, self-styled journalistic members of "The Resistance”, such as The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg and Charles Blow, have seemed almost hysterical, at times, as they warned that Trump was a menace to our democracy. Well, they were right, after all. Trump has shifted from talking like an autocrat to acting like one.

The Emergency--Can I Keep My Base?

A Shout-Out for The Chinese Government

Trump showed his authoritarian streak during a bizarre aside during his press conference on the emergency declaration. Trump repeated his false allegations about drugs pouring across unfenced portions of the border. In fact, 80-90% come through ports of entry, in trucks or cars, as documented in the recent trial of Mexican drug kingpin El Chapo. Trump then recounted a conversation with Chinese president Xi Jinping and he asserted, with admiration, that China doesn’t have a drug problem. “China has the death penalty for drug dealers”, the president of the United States said, “while here they just get fines”.

It was profoundly depressing to watch a president praise the criminal justice system of a totalitarian regime. Doesn’t Trump know that the Chinese don’t bother with due process in their trials? Doesn’t he realize that dealing drugs in the U.S. is a felony? Is he aware that the U.S. has the biggest prison population in the world primarily because of our harsh drug offense-sentencing laws?

Will Republican Lawmakers Stand Up to Trump…or Kow-Tow?

Several Republican Congressional leaders, like Senator Lindsey Graham and Representative Jim Jordan, urged Trump to declare an emergency or openly stated their support for such a maneuver. This continues a disturbing pattern of some Republican leaders jettisoning democratic norms in their pursuit of short-term goals. In this case, they are willing to surrender Congress’ power of the purse, relinquishing their leverage over the president, so Trump can get $5.7 billion to fund his wall. They are playing with fire.

Rep. Jordan inadvertently expressed this anti-democratic strain of thinking yesterday when he remarked:

“For goodness sake, we tried for 35 days in December and January, right, to get the Democrats to do what everyone knows needs to happen except Democrats. I support the national emergency declaration 100 percent”.

In other words, Mr. Jordan, you lost the budget fight in Congress because you were outvoted. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that how a democracy works?

The Republicans’ attitude is crucial. The House of Representatives, controlled by the Democrats, will undoubtedly pass a resolution nullifying the emergency resolution. However, the Senate must also pass the resolution. So far, a handful of Republican Senators, such as Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio have indicated their opposition to the declaration.

Hats off to them! But will enough of their peers stand up to Trump? It is not encouraging that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell now supports the declaration, after arguing against it in private meetings with Trump.

There’s another obstacle: Trump could veto the resolution, even if both houses of Congress passed it. However, that could be dangerous for Trump and leave him yet more isolated than he is now. Still, one can’t rule it out; Trump is clearly desperate.

Let’s hope this desperate man can be stopped from smashing our democracy.

The Wall Street Democrat

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