Opinion writer

If President Trump goes through with his plan to send thousands of troops to the border, a move that appears solely designed to hype the Central American migrants into a national emergency and boost GOP chances in the election, the decision will merit serious congressional scrutiny.

And if Democrats take back the House, that’s exactly what it’s going to get.

In an interview with me, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, confirmed that a Democratic House will hold hearings on the decision in order to compel the administration to justify and explain it.

“We would ask the Pentagon to come in and explain to us in an open public hearing what they’re doing and why,” Smith, who would take over as committee chair if Democrats won the majority, told me. “I don’t think we should let the president get away with this type of policy with no justification and no explanation for it.”

More than 100 House Democrats have signed a new letter to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis demanding a briefing and an explanation of the rationale for the current strategy. The letter, which was sent my way, says:

The President has exploited the caravan of people traveling to the U.S. to seek asylum for his own political gain, and he continues to politicize and militarize this humanitarian crisis as these men, women, and children are fleeing violence and persecution in an unstable part of the world. … This use of military personnel and resources for functions outside of core mission areas warrants additional Congressional oversight.

The letter further asks for answers to basic questions about the strategy, such as:

What rules of engagement will troops be under with regard to individuals in the caravan or any other individuals approaching or coming across the southern border?

Have any troops been instructed or trained on how to interact or engage in any way with individuals in the caravan? If so, what is the nature of the expected interaction and what training have these troops received for these interactions?

How much will this deployment cost the American taxpayer?

Obviously, with Democrats in the minority, they cannot force these issues. But this letter should be seen as a preview of what oversight would look like on this whole mess if Democrats do take back the House.

Trump is sending these troops to the border for no purpose other than dramatizing his campaign message that only he and Republicans will protect the country from what he is characterizing as a national emergency. His characterization is simply absurd — these migrants are hundreds of miles from the border, they are dwindling in number, and the caravan is mostly made up of families with children. Trump has conjured up this campaign fiction by resorting to all manner of garish, unconstrained lies. The use of the military as props to sustain that fiction is an extraordinary abuse of the public trust.

But let’s say I’m wrong about that. One way to determine whether any serious due diligence and deliberations actually did go into this decision is through congressional scrutiny. And this situation is very ripe for it. The administration could be pressed to answer questions about those deliberations. Such hearings, Smith told me, would involve multiple committees of jurisdiction, such as the Homeland Security, Judiciary and Oversight committees.

What’s more, Trump’s very declaration of a national emergency itself deserves scrutiny. Trump declared this emergency in a tweet, without going through the proper legal protocols. As David Nakamura reports, critics worry that these emergency-declarations-by-tweet constitute another measure of Trump’s “willingness to act outside the bounds of his predecessors,” one that “is priming supporters to place their faith solely in his judgment over what warrants an emergency response from the executive branch.”

That’s worrisome stuff that merits real oversight.

Finally, there’s the bigger picture. Trump has raged against Central American countries for “sending” migrants north and has threatened to cut off aid. This, plus sending in the troops, makes any regional solutions to the root causes of these exoduses — the horrible conditions in these countries — harder, not easier.

“We should be the ones leading the conversations and bringing in all the nations in the region to see if we can’t get an answer,” Smith told me, adding: “Pushing them away is the exact opposite of trying to find ways that we can work together to solve the problem.” The broader strategy, too, merits real scrutiny.

“It seems like the president is trying to gin up an issue as opposed to addressing a problem,” Smith said. “I would like to hear the policy justification.”

It would be great if congressional Republicans would ask such questions. But they won’t. Which is yet another reason the stakes in the coming election are so high.