President Trump has long displayed a soft spot for strongmen.
He has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin for exerting “strong control over a country” and said Rodrigo Duterte is doing a “great job,” even as the Philippine president was accused of allowing thousands of extrajudicial killings. He has spoken favorably of Chinese President Xi Jinping and said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has “a great personality, he’s a funny guy, he’s very smart.”
Now, with his national emergency declaration, Trump once again showed an affinity for authoritarianism.
At a news conference in the White House Rose Garden on Friday, Trump announced that he would declare a national emergency to secure funds for a border wall specifically denied to him by Congress. Critics warned it was a clear subversion of the American system of checks and balances, and possibly unconstitutional.
At the ceremony, Trump didn’t address any of those concerns. Instead, after NBC News’s Peter Alexander challenged him on why he was proceeding without the support of Congress, Trump explained that he was frustrated that the lawmakers wouldn’t give him what he wants. “I didn’t need to do this,” he said. “But I’d rather do it much faster.”
He then blamed the politics of the 2020 election for Democrats not supporting the wall, saying, “I just want to do it faster.”
Trump also spoke at the news conference about the ongoing trade negotiations with China. “We’re very much working very closely with China and President Xi, who I respect a lot,” Trump said. “Very good relationship that we have.” But that relationship has basically ignored China’s human rights atrocities, such as its treatment of the Muslim Uighur population.
Trump also explicitly praised China’s approach to its drug problem, saying, “President Xi has agreed to put fentanyl on his list of deadly, deadly drugs, and it’s a criminal penalty, and the penalty is death.” Human rights groups have said China’s judicial system and punishment of drug offenders can be arbitrary and unnecessarily harsh.
In his remarks, Trump also praised China, along with Russia, in pressuring North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
“China’s been helping us, and Russia’s been helping us. And South Korea, I think you can say, has been — we’ve been working very closely with South Korea, with Japan,” he said. “But China, Russia on the border, have really been at least partially living up to what they’re supposed to be doing, and that’s okay, as per the United Nations.”
In referencing his upcoming meeting with North Korea’s Kim, Trump spoke pleasantly of his relationship with the leader widely viewed as a brutal dictator. “I look forward to seeing Chairman Kim. We have also established a very good relationship, which has never happened between him or his family and the United Nations.”
These statements reflect Trump’s transactional view toward foreign policy: It really doesn’t matter what you do to your own people, as long as you are doing what I want.
One of Trump’s greatest criticisms of Barack Obama was his belief that his predecessor regularly overstepped his bounds as president. But Trump’s words and actions suggest he’s not opposed to other national leaders having such broad powers, including himself. His latest maneuver is sure to attract the attention of his critics, the courts and maybe even some lawmakers worried about executive overreach.