Nation & World

Trump declares immigration emergency, but court fight looms over presidential powers

Cedar Rapids and its flood protection plans do not appear to be impacted by President Trump's emergency declaration

President Donald Trump on Friday declares a national emergency in order to build his promised border wall during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House. “Walls work 100 percent,” he said. (Olivier Douliery/Tribune News Service)
President Donald Trump on Friday declares a national emergency in order to build his promised border wall during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House. “Walls work 100 percent,” he said. (Olivier Douliery/Tribune News Service)
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WASHINGTON — Brushed off by Mexico, rejected by Democrats and feeling abandoned by some Republicans, President Donald Trump declared Friday the national immigration emergency he had been threatening for months, casting the fate of his signature campaign promise into the hands of a court system he acknowledged could be unpredictable.

It’s a risky strategy to finance a southern border wall, one that drew strong rebukes even from many fellow Republicans. But Trump is betting that the potential payoff with his political base is worth the risks to the institution of the presidency and the divisions within his party.

Yet Trump, explaining he “was a little new to the job” when he came to office in 2017, said he felt he had no choice now that his other efforts had failed for two years.

“We’re going to confront the national security crisis on our southern border,” Trump said in an event at the White House Rose Garden in which he delivered a meandering policy defense before leaving town for a break at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach resort.

“It’s all a big lie, a big con game. Walls work 100 percent,” he said of his opponents’ arguments against it.

With the emergency order in place, “we will then be sued. ... We will possibly get another bad ruling,” he said, reciting a litany of courts in a singsong voice. “We’ll end up in the Supreme Court,” where, he said, he hopes to “get a fair shake.”

The declaration is intended to circumvent Congress, which has refused to spend the billions needed for a wall he had long insisted would be paid for by Mexico instead of U.S. taxpayers.

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Administration officials said Trump will try to use emergency powers to divert money from other projects, mostly military construction efforts, to build or rebuild as much as 234 miles of border fences.

The order would free an additional $6.6 billion for barrier construction, Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, said.

That potentially would bring total spending on construction to $8 billion, including the $1.375 billion authorized by Congress in the spending bill, which passed Congress on Thursday and which Trump signed Friday afternoon.

Of the total, about $3.6 billion would come from the military construction projects. Most of the rest would come from an account for projects to combat drug trafficking.

With the expanded military budget that he’s pursued, the Pentagon can afford to divert some funds to the border, Trump said. “This is a very, very small amount” of the military budget, he added.

The administration decided against the more politically controversial step of tapping disaster relief money to help Texas, Puerto Rico and others including Cedar Rapids, Mulvaney said.

But officials declined to specify which projects would lose money or suffer delays, though they insisted military readiness would not suffer.

Administration officials also declined to say where new barriers would be erected or rebuilt or how many new miles of barriers would be added to the fences that currently exist.

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Trump has relaxed his demand for a solid structure that would cover the length of the border, but he insists that hundreds of miles of steel bollard fencing are essential to the nation’s security.

So far, no additional miles of border fence have been built under his presidency. Trump has tried to persuade supporters that he’s making progress, in part by adopting a new slogan that implicitly takes credit for work previous presidents have done: “Finish the wall.”

Congress could seek to overturn Trump’s emergency declaration. The House likely will do so; in the Senate, such a measure would pass if four Republicans joined all the Democrats. Even then, it’s highly questionable whether there would be enough votes to override a veto.

Several Republican senators sharply criticized the declaration. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee issued an unusually strong repudiation, calling the order unconstitutional.

“After the American Revolution against a king, our founders chose not to create a chief executive with the power to tax the people and spend their money any way he chooses,” Alexander said. “The Constitution gives that authority exclusively to a Congress elected by the people.”

In a statement issued as Trump spoke, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called the emergency declaration “unlawful.”

“The President is not above the law,” the statement said. “The Congress cannot let the President shred the Constitution.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., however, said Trump’s hand was forced on declaring a national emergency by congressional Democrats.

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“President Trump’s decision to announce emergency action is the predictable and understandable consequence of Democrats’ decision to put partisan obstruction ahead of the national interest,” McConnell said in a statement.

While other presidents have wielded emergency authority, they generally have done so to sanction foreign adversaries or combat domestic crises, such as epidemics.

Trump is pushing beyond what others have tried in order to fund projects explicitly rejected by Congress, which has the constitutional power of the purse.

Administration officials said Friday that presidents have used national emergency powers 58 times since 1976. Only two of those instances involved spending money, they said, pointing to orders signed by George H.W. Bush during the Iraq War in 1990 and by George W. Bush following the 2001 terrorist attacks. Officials said the authority was used in those instances to spend a combined $1.4 billion.

The Washington Post contributed.

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