The case stemmed from Trump’s emergency declaration, which plaintiffs claimed violated the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2019, that “prohibits the administration from increasing that funding beyond what Congress expressly approved.” The president’s attempt to snatch money from the Pentagon was invalid because “it sought to override Congress’s decision not to fund further border wall construction” and invade Congress’s appropriations power.
As is often the case, Trump’s own words and actions did him in:
Trump declared the emergency only after months of failed attempts to obtain additional funding for his border wall culminated in the longest U.S. government shutdown in history. He even publicly acknowledged that there was no urgency, saying “I didn’t need to do this, but I’d rather do it much faster.” The administration then moved to transfer $8.1 billion for border wall construction efforts — $6.7 billion more than the $1.375 billion approved by Congress — in an attempt to sidestep Congress’s constitutional role as the appropriator of government money.
The court, as others have done in a variety of contexts, rebuffed Trump’s claims to unfettered power under the the National Emergencies Act. “The administration’s position, had it been accepted, would have significantly weakened Congress’s appropriations power by giving the president power to override appropriations decisions using the National Emergencies Act — unless Congress musters a veto-proof majority to disapprove. It also would have changed the presumption that the executive branch cannot spend money unless Congress specifically approves it.” What is frightful is that Trump’s Justice Department adopted such an implausible position and engaged in a direct attack on the separation of powers.
In finding that the West Texas city would suffer irreparable harm, the U.S District Court for the Western District of Texas said, “Defendants will divert $20 million away from a planned military construction project at Fort Bliss in El Paso County. Fort Bliss is the lifeblood of the El Paso economy, contributing billions of dollars and creating thousands of jobs. Losing funds that had been appropriated for use at Fort Bliss creates the imminent prospect of economic harm to El Paso County.” It is striking how little the administration cares about the citizens of Texas, who also received no help from the state’s two Republican U.S. senators — John Cornyn and Ted Cruz — who are supposed to be representing their interests and defending the Constitution. Perhaps in 2020, Texans will remember which party was willing to inflict billions of dollars in harm to their economy.
Kristy Parker, counsel for Protect Democracy, stated: “The president’s emergency proclamation was a blatant attempt to grab power from Congress. Today’s order affirms that the president is not a king and that our courts are willing to check him when he oversteps his bounds. This is a huge win for democracy and the rule of law.”
In addition to reaffirming Congress’s Article II powers at the very time it is pursuing impeachment against a president who has placed himself above the law and the country’s national security interests, the legal victory is noteworthy for two reasons. “The case is notable for its cross-partisan legal team, and for where it was filed. When the president issued the emergency declaration, he predicted that ‘they will sue us in the Ninth Circuit,’ yet this case was brought in the famously conservative Fifth Circuit.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) released a statement, crowing, “Today’s District Court ruling is a victory for the rule of law, our Constitution and our American democracy. Once again, the courts have resoundingly ruled against the President’s attempt to negate our system of separation of powers, which is the genius of our Constitution, by assaulting Congress’s exclusive constitutional power of the purse.” With unmistakable impeachment overtones, she continued, “Despite what the President may think, Article II does not mean that he can ‘do whatever he wants.’ . . . The House will continue to fight the President’s assault on our democracy and national security in the Courts, in the Congress and in the court of public opinion, as we honor our oath to support and defend the Constitution.”
The courts, at least at the federal and circuit court levels, have done a remarkable job restraining the president’s continual power grabs. In the absence of Republicans willing to enforce statutory and constitutional restrictions on the president, the courts have taken up the slack but they are not solely capable of holding Trump in check. Absent a Supreme Court willing to rebuff executive power grabs (which Trump’s appointees seem loath to do), and absent Republicans in Congress willing to enforce its powers (recall the Congress did not override Trump’s veto of a bill to void the declaration) or to remove him for high crimes and misdemeanors, the federal courts can only do so much.
It is nevertheless reassuring that when the decision-makers are not irrational cult followers who willfully distort reality but federal judges bound to follow the facts and law, Trump consistently loses. Truth and the Constitution do matter, just not to the Republican Party.
UPDATE: It is worth noting that Congress can prevent further abuse with legislation. "Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center, which also represented the plaintiffs, said: “It’s past time for Congress to reassert its role as a check on the Executive Branch. We are pleased with the court’s order, but there is still a need to get to the root of the problem. Hopefully, today’s order will invigorate bipartisan efforts to reform the National Emergencies Act.”