Trump’s fake emergency, real threats, and marks for the con

Feb 20, 2019 at 1:00 am
Trump’s fake emergency, real threats, and marks for the con
Joseph Sohm /

On Friday morning, Donald Trump walked into the Rose Garden to declare that, while he'd done a better job of border security than anyone ever had, there was now an unprecedented emergency that required diverting funds from actual military projects to build a southern border wall that Congress had explicitly refused to pay for.

Here, verbatim, is how he explained his decision: "I could do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn't need to do this. But I'd rather do it much faster. I don't have to do it for the election. I've already done a lot of wall for the election, 2020. And the only reason we're up here talking about this is because of the election, which it looks like they're not going to be able to do. And this is one of the ways they think they can possibly win is by obstruction and a lot of other nonsense. I think that — I just want to get it done faster, that's all."

About six hours later, emergency in effect, he flew to Mar-a-Lago to play golf.

At this point, there's barely any use in debunking Trump's lies. The reality is what it is: Border apprehensions have been declining for nearly two decades, according to Trump's own Department of Homeland Security. But Trump — probably to appease his MAGA rubes, possibly because his head is made of straw, maybe both — has rejected that reality and substituted his own, a hellscape dystopia of brown invaders coming to kill your wives and rape your daughters.

Still, the absurdity of the president inventing a national emergency out of whole cloth shouldn't obscure the holy-shit-seriousness of the president inventing a national emergency of whole cloth.

Since the National Emergencies Act was passed in 1976, it's been invoked 59 times. Thirty-two of those emergencies are still in effect: Most sanction people involved in human-rights abuses or narcotics trafficking. None, before now, was a transparent usurpation of congressional spending authority.

Trump is relying on two powers the law grants him: One lets him redirect Army civil works projects toward "authorized civil works, military construction and civil defense projects that are essential to the national defense." The other permits the secretary of defense to begin military construction projects "necessary to support such use of the armed forces." (Obvious, but worth reiterating: This all presupposes an actual emergency.)

In Washington, the few Republicans who still bother pretending at intellectual honesty are furiously stroking their chins, fretting about what a Democrat could do with such powers. (Address climate change? The horror!) Maybe they'll vote with Democrats to condemn Trump's declaration — or not, as most have the backbone of a squid — but it's unlikely there'll be enough votes to override a veto.

The wall will almost certainly get gummed up in the courts, however, where Trump's elocution Friday — "I didn't need to do this" — won't do him any favors. Still, courts have given presidents wide latitude on what constitutes an emergency, so who knows. (Like so much of the Trump presidency, we're in uncharted waters.) More problematic, Trump wants to reroute military resources to border security, a civilian operation, which courts tend to frown upon. And it'll be difficult to argue that the wall is "essential to the national defense" because, well, judges have eyes.

Even if Trump prevails, nothing is likely to happen before the next election, which, for the president, is just as well. To Trump, building a wall is secondary to looking like he's building a wall. In his mind, declaring an emergency makes him look strong, and having the wall as an election issue gives him license to rage about scary brown invaders, which riles up his base. Sure, Trump probably wants the thing, but for his vanity — because he doesn't want his supporters to think him weak, because he can only envision a legacy through edifices.

At its core, though, this is all farce, a con for the president's simple-minded marks. (If you don't see that, sorry, you're a mark.) But that doesn't mean we should roll our eyes at it. The National Emergencies Act perhaps naively presumed that presidents would use it in good faith, not to subvert the gravity of their office to the pettiness of their ego. Perhaps Donald Trump is too incompetent to be dangerous, but when he's gone, this genie won't want to go back into the bottle.

And the next guy or gal who wants to use a make-believe crisis to circumvent an inconvenient Congress might be able to string a coherent sentence together.

Stay on top of Detroit news and views. Sign up for our weekly issue newsletter delivered each Wednesday.