This post has been updated.
Two and a half months ago, President Trump said he was going to declare the opioid crisis a “national emergency.” Then, for a long time, he didn't.
Last week, he again said that he was about to declare it a “national emergency,” and then he reiterated that was his plan this week.
He's still not going to do it — not really.
Trump will declare the opioid crisis a “public health emergency” Thursday, rather than a “national emergency.” That may seem like quibbling with the president's words, but the latter would carry significantly more weight. The Post's Jenna Johnson reports:
. . . The president will stop short of declaring a more sweeping national state of emergency that would have given states access to funding from the federal Disaster Relief Fund, just as they would be following a tornado or hurricane. Officials who briefed reporters said that declaring that sort of emergency is not a good fit for a longtime crisis and did not offer authorities that the government doesn't already have.
But as the New York Times notes, a “national emergency” would have “triggered the rapid allocation of federal funding to address the issue.” A public health emergency does not do that by itself. Several experts on the opioid crisis are bashing the move as a half-measure, NPR reports. In contrast, other public health officials, including some who served in the Obama administration, are arguing that the "public health emergency" is indeed a better fit.
Whatever the motivation for the scaled-back response, though, let's be clear: The president did repeatedly promise to make the crisis a “national emergency,” using those specific words.
“We're going to draw it up, and we're going to make it a national emergency,” he said on Aug. 10 at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J.
It looked for a while as though Trump might not actually do anything, as more than two months passed. Then, last week, he said the announcement was indeed coming.
Q: What about declaring a written national emergency for this crisis? You've talked about it but you haven’t put that piece of paper together.
TRUMP: We are going to be doing that next week. By the way, you know, that's a big step. By the way, people have no understanding of what you just said. That is a very, very big statement. It's a very important step.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also seemed to suggest that it would indeed be a national emergency, saying Oct. 18, “There’s a very in-depth legal process that goes with declaring a national emergency.”
And Trump said in interview that aired Wednesday night on Fox Business Network — the day before the move was to be announced — “Next week, I’m going to declare an emergency, national emergency on drugs.”
He apparently meant “Thursday” and “not quite a national emergency.”
I have little doubt that Trump supporters will dismiss this as the media over-analyzing Trump's exact words. Maybe he meant a “public health emergency” all this time and just used the wrong word. Maybe Sanders used the wrong word, too. Trump's own opioid commission, which is headed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), seemed to lump the two together in its recommendations to Trump, urging him to “declare a national emergency under either the Public Health Service Act or the Stafford Act.” (The White House is using the former act; the latter would be a true national emergency.)
But the Public Health Service Act itself differentiates a “national emergency” from its own powers to declare a “public health emergency” (emphasis added):
(5) URGENT OR EMERGENCY PUBLIC HEALTH CARE NEED.—
For purposes of this section and section 214, the term ‘‘urgent or emergency public health care need’’ means a health care need, as determined by the Secretary, arising as the result of—
(A) a national emergency declared by the President under the National Emergencies Act (50 U.S.C. 1601 et seq.);
(B) an emergency or major disaster declared by the President under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. 5121 et seq.);
(C) a public health emergency declared by the Secretary under section 319 of this Act; or
(D) any emergency that, in the judgment of the Secretary, is appropriate for the deployment of members of the Corps.
For a White House that doesn't generally seem to have a game plan, it just confirms that it is playing fast and loose and that Trump doesn't choose his words carefully. As the opioid commission noted in its report, an estimated 142 people die every day from opioids — “a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks.” For almost four of those 9/11-equaling three-week periods, Trump and the White House have left the impression that a full-scale “national emergency” was coming, never seeking to rein in that pledge. And given the smaller-scale “public health emergency” declaration, it's even less clear why it took 11 weeks to make this happen.
On an issue of such import, it would seem that clarity is the best policy. The White House for some reason didn't provide that, even with untold lives in the balance.