The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s presidency enters a new imperial phase — and Mitch McConnell just rolls over

Mitch McConnell is rubber-stamping a fake emergency, (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

ADMITTEDLY, IT is an overworked trope. “Imagine how Republicans would have responded if Barack Obama had tried this!” Democrats exclaim at each fresh outrage. In the case of President Trump’s plan to declare an emergency to build a border wall, it is certainly apt; the Freedom Caucus (including Mick Mulvaney, now Mr. Trump’s acting chief of staff) would have been apoplectic. But in considering this phony emergency conjured cynically for electoral advantage, it is more apt to imagine the future than the past.

Imagine indeed if, two years from now, a President Booker, Harris, Warren or Bennet, seizing on the Parkland massacre’s anniversary, invoked emergency powers to halt the killing of innocents — by banning the sale of semiautomatic weapons, imposing uniform background checks for gun purchases or levying a stiff federal surtax on the sale of gun parts and ammunition.

If an emergency can be manufactured over border security when illegal border crossings are near a 20-year low, as measured by Border Patrol arrests, then it’s a snap to make the case for an emergency over gun deaths, which are near a 20-year high.

It seems logical that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), having approved Mr. Trump’s emergency, would acquiesce in future such emergency declarations. By becoming a rubber stamp for Mr. Trump, Mr. McConnell has set a precedent: that he is prepared to accept any president who would treat the will of Congress, and the Constitution, with cavalier contempt.

For make no mistake, that is precisely what Mr. Trump will have done if he goes ahead with his plan. His fulminations about a border wall having failed to convince the legislative branch, which forged a deal that yielded less than a quarter of the funds the president demanded, he has decided by his planned emergency declaration simply to render the legislative branch irrelevant. That’s a tried-and-true technique for autocrats the world over; it’s not what the framers had in mind when they granted Congress the power of the purse.

It was in the exercise of that power that 17 lawmakers of both parties spent the past two weeks hammering out details of a measure to fund the government, including $1.375 billion to construct 55 miles of new fencing in the Rio Grande Valley. That measure cleared the Senate easily, with broad bipartisan support.

The president’s response was to say, in effect: So what?

In telegraphing Mr. Trump’s intent, White House aides have said he will identify other funding sources and cannibalize them for the border wall — “we’ll go off and find the money someplace else, legally,” as Mr. Mulvaney said last weekend. It remains to be seen whether diverting billions of dollars is legal — a court fight is likely — but there is no doubt that it is an affront to the democratic process.

By his declaration, Mr. Trump will inaugurate a new, imperial phase of his presidency. Mr. McConnell, who had previously warned him against such an action, will show he has perfected a trick: roll over and play dead.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Trump’s national emergency will only underscore his raging, delusional impotence

Mark Tushnet: Let’s say Trump declares a national emergency. What happens next?

Greg Sargent: If Trump declares a national emergency, Pelosi can jam Republicans. Here’s how.

Jennifer Rubin: An ‘emergency’ power grab would only add to Trump’s problems

Marc A. Thiessen: How Trump can get the rest of his wall money — without a shutdown or emergency