The first rule of President Trump declaring a national emergency to build his big beautiful dumb wall is: there is no national emergency.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon that the president would take the unprecedented step after Congress agreed to a spending bill that funds the government for the rest of the fiscal year without appropriating money for the wall. Shortly after that, the White House released a statement confirming the news:
“The president is once again delivering on his promise to build the wall, protect the border, and secure our great country.”
As I type this, cable news panels are debating the hows and what-nows of declaring this emergency, assuming Trump still goes through with it once the funding bill passes both congressional chambers. Under what legal statute will Trump declare his authority to take this step? Will the Democrats take legal action to try and block it in the courts? From what programs will the White House take money in order to pay for the wall? Why take this unpopular step when his approval ratings have actually jumped since the shutdown ended three weeks ago?
All of these are good questions. But none of them get to the heart of the matter, which should be the first and last point, as well as every single one in between:
There is, objectively, no national emergency that requires a border wall.
The public justification for building the wall, expressed by Trump and often repeated by his most fervent acolytes, has always been that the southern border is some sort of chaotic free-for-all where hordes of undocumented migrants pour into America unabated, bringing with them crime and disease. It is some sort of fever-dream image right out of the racist novel Camp of the Saints and run through the shredder between the president’s brain and his mouth, from which it spills forth in an avalanche of nonsense.
That border crossings have actually dropped to historic lows without the BBDW is irrelevant. That years of research show undocumented immigrants commit significantly less crime than native-born Americans is irrelevant. That diseases stemming from under-regulated industries, environmental pollution and parents refusing to vaccinate their children are a significantly bigger threat to Americans than a handful of migrants with the measles is irrelevant.
All of the declared justifications Trump has expressed over the years are horse hockey. The way you can tell they are horse hockey, aside from statistics that knock them all down, is that almost no one in his political party agrees with him about the wall’s importance. If they did, they would have appropriated funds to build it during the first two years of his presidency. Or they would have given Democrats something important to them in negotiations over the spending bill in exchange for the money. That they did not do so is telling.
Again, there is, objectively, no national emergency that requires a border wall.
The wall is Linus’s security blanket in Peanuts: it serves no purpose, provides no security and makes him look silly to full-grown adults. But he will still throw a massive tantrum if you take it away from him.
What he has done here is open up a massive can of worms for America’s ever-ongoing argument over separation of powers between its executive and legislative branches. What’s to stop future socialist president Alexandria Oscasio-Cortez declaring a national emergency over climate change – which is, objectively, an actual emergency – and appropriating military funding (beloved mostly by Republicans) to build high-speed rail? Or seizing every coal plant in the country and converting them into vegan restaurants?
This will all get sorted out in the courts, possibly up to the Supreme Court, where Republicans recently installed one Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who has an expansive view of presidential power. It would be something else if he winds up being the deciding vote letting Trump declare a national emergency that almost no one in the GOP wants because of the precedent it will set for the future.
A fake emergency that will allow future Democratic presidents to seize power to confront real emergencies that Republicans have sought to ignore for decades. If it plays out that way, there will be some poetic justice.