Little political downside seen for Trump or Democrats in national emergency declaration

President Donald Trump speaks in the White House Rose Garden on Feb. 15, 2019. (CNN Newsource)

President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency Friday to obtain funding for a border wall that had been denied to him by Congress is sure to create enormous legal complications for the White House, but, given the promises and threats the president has made, it may have been the only politically palatable option he had left.

“I didn’t need to do this. But I'd rather do it much faster,” Trump told reporters in the White House Rose Garden after announcing the emergency, claiming a national security and humanitarian crisis at the southern border.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Thursday Trump would support a bipartisan funding bill that averted a partial government shutdown but he would declare a national emergency at the same time. Although McConnell often warned publicly against the emergency declaration over the last two months, he announced enthusiastic support for it Friday.

“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.

Democratic leaders called upon Republicans to “join us to defend the Constitution” against executive overreach.

“This is plainly a power grab by a disappointed President, who has gone outside the bounds of the law to try to get what he failed to achieve in the constitutional legislative process,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a joint statement.

Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion for border wall construction and Democratic opposition to it forced a five-week partial shutdown that ended in late January when he gave lawmakers three weeks to negotiate a deal on border security funding. When that agreement was announced earlier this week, it included $1.375 billion for 55 miles of new border fencing but nothing for the kind of barrier structure Trump promised on the campaign trail.

Trump frequently threatened to declare a national emergency if he was unsatisfied with the compromise bill, which provides funding for the Department of Homeland Security and several other federal agencies for the rest of the fiscal year. The White House said Friday the declaration will provide access to $8 billion to build 234 miles of steel bollard fencing.

“Not only was Trump waiting until after the deal to play the ‘emergency’ card, it was also the right political timing,” said Republican strategist David Payne. “Remember, he lost this battle during its first round. Democrats gave up nothing, and the shutdown didn’t yield a single win for the president.”

Republicans have attempted to frame the appropriations bill as a victory for Trump because it does not include restrictions on Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention beds Democrats sought and it provides some money for barriers. They acknowledge if falls far short of the president’s demands, though.

“He can claim a partial win, followed-up by headline-generating funding added through his emergency declaration,” Payne said. “It’s big. It’s showy. In other words, it’s Trump at work.”

Although Democrats complained about the president usurping congressional authority and threatening the balance of powers Friday, experts say Trump’s declaration benefits them politically, at least in the short run.

“I think there’s a very limited downside for the Democrats,” said Glenn Altschuler, a professor of American studies at Cornell University. “Their motion to disapprove or rescind [the declaration] is likely to be enthusiastically supported by their base, gain approval with a majority of Americans, and, similarly, having this taken to court may well have the approval of a majority of Americans.”

Several legal challenges were already brewing Friday afternoon, but some scholars expect Trump will eventually prevail in court because judges tend to give the president very wide latitude with emergency authority.

“It’s possible that, at the end of the day--and who knows when the end of the day will be—President Trump can get a big win out of this,” Altschuler said.

The emergency declaration will be applauded by Trump’s base, and many congressional Republicans are already defending it, but it remains unpopular with the general public. A CNN/SSRS poll conducted earlier this month found about 30 percent of Americans supported declaring an emergency in order to build the wall, though more than half of Republicans were in favor of it.

“He seems to consider it a victory if he continues to convince his base that he is fighting for the wall,” said Richard Arenberg, a longtime congressional senior staffer and author of “Congressional Procedure: A Practical Guide to the Legislative Process in the U.S. Congress.” “Whether the wall is built or not, he will spin it as a victory or a demonstration that he fought the ‘leftist’ Democrats the whole way.”

Payne warned Democrats not to underestimate the political power of that argument.

“Here’s the caution for Democrats running for Congress and the White House: Trump ran in 2016 promising the wall, and he won. Clinton ran against it and lost,” he said.

House Democrats have announced plans to introduce legislation terminating the national emergency. Such a resolution would almost certainly pass the Democrat-controlled House, and it may even get enough Republican votes to pass in the Senate.

“That puts [Republican Senators] Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, perhaps John Cornyn, perhaps Cory Gardner in a difficult situation,” Altschuler said. “Most of them are on record saying that this declaration sets a bad precedent and is of dubious constitutionality.”

Aides have already made clear Trump would veto such a resolution, and a veto-proof majority in the GOP-controlled Senate supporting a veto override against a Republican president on his signature issue seems like a longshot.

The $8 billion of available funds the White House has identified only covers construction the president planned for fiscal year 2019. This whole drama could play out again over 2020 border security funding later this year in an even more fraught political environment.

That could prove to be an even uglier and costlier battle for both parties, but Payne expects it is a battle Democrats and Republicans will readily wage.

“Here’s the dirty political secret,” he said. “In an election year, both sides want this issue to animate their campaigns. Trump needs something to fight for: the rest of the wall. Democrats need something to fight against: the rest of the wall. This funding compromise sets the stage for 2020. It leaves so much undecided.”

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