Here's how Trump explained the move in a letter to Congress:
Title 5, United States Code, authorizes me to implement alternative plans for pay adjustments for civilian Federal employees covered by the General Schedule and certain other pay systems if, because of “national emergency or serious economic conditions affecting the general welfare,” I view the increases that would otherwise take effect as inappropriate.
If those “serious economic conditions" exist, though, they somehow exist even in what Trump has declared to be the best U.S. economy ever. Trump added that it's important to “put our Nation on a fiscally sustainable course,” despite the deficit being projected to balloon to more than $1 trillion on his watch, thanks to the GOP tax cuts and other spending.
It just doesn't compute.
Trump is hardly the first president to use this method to halt government raises; every president over the last quarter-century has done so, including Bill Clinton when the government was running a surplus in the 1990s. But doing so while claiming unprecedented economic strength can't help but make either the claim or Trump's justification for the move ring hollow.
And it's hardly the only example of Trump exploiting federal law to fulfill his agenda -- even if it may not be entirely consistent or the method well-established.
The most obvious other example is Trump's tariffs, which he put in place using a little-used section of the law allowing a president to act when national-security interests are at stake. Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 hadn't been used since 1982, but Trump's Commerce Department determined that reliance upon Canada, Mexico and the European Union constituted a national-security threat, giving Trump the authority to bypass Congress.
As WorldViews' Adam Taylor wrote this week, Trump has also used Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act to launch a trade war with China by declaring China an unfair trade partner. Gary Hufbauer, a trade expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said these laws were “never intended for the type of purpose he’s using them for."
In June, Trump again cited national security in ordering Energy Secretary Rick Perry to use the Cold War-era Defense Production Act and Section 202 of the Federal Power Act to prop up coal and nuclear power plants. “This would extend the statute far beyond how it’s ever been used before,” Ari Peskoe, head of the Electricity Law Initiative at Harvard University, told Bloomberg.
And tariffs and energy aren't the only moves for which Trump has exercised his authority under the auspices of national security. As The Post's Anne Gearan reported last week, Trump has used that justification for his policies on immigrants (including the travel ban), refugees, transgender soldiers, the now-aborted policy of separating families at the border, and revoking security clearances for Obama-era intelligence officials who have said things he doesn't like. Sometimes these were the public justifications; other times they were used as legal justifications.
The point isn't so much that there aren't genuine national-security concerns for which some of these laws may need to be invoked — we've had many “emergencies” that have persisted across multiple administrations — nor is it that withholding pay increases for federal workers is necessarily wrong or ill-advised.
It's just that Trump seems to find legal justifications for domestic policies that he clearly wanted to pursue anyway, even when that justification may contradict the facts on the ground or Trump's own pronouncements.