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Trump declares national emergency on southern border in bid to build wall

President Trump declared a national emergency to build a border wall on Feb. 15. Here's what you missed. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post, Photo: Oliver Contreras/The Washington Post)

President Trump on Friday declared the situation on the southern border of the United States to be a national emergency, catapulting the country into uncertain legal and political battles as he seeks to fulfill a campaign promise that eluded him for two years.

He made the designation in an attempt to redirect taxpayer money from other accounts and use it to erect more than 230 miles of barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border. But Trump anticipates a flurry of legal challenges that will eventually be decided by the Supreme Court.

Democrats are trying to paint the action as evidence of a rogue president who has finally gone too far, and they vowed to stop him.

Trump’s announcement capped a frenetic two-month period that included the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, at 35 days; the reemergence of Democrats as a political force; and a Republican Party caught between taking signals from Trump and bucking his unconventional impulses. It also begins a new phase of his presidency that will test the separation of powers, as he sidesteps Congress despite Republicans urging restraint.

During a 50-minute, meandering Rose Garden news conference, Trump offered little empirical evidence to back up his assertion that there was a crisis on the border requiring an extraordinary response. Instead, he invoked hyperbolic, campaign-style rhetoric about lawlessness that he said only walls could suitably address.

“We’re talking about an invasion of our country with drugs, with human traffickers, with all types of criminals and gangs,” he said. He used the word “invasion” seven times.

He later said the emergency declaration wasn’t urgent but rather expedient, as it would help him build a wall more quickly than Congress would allow.

“I didn’t need to do this, but I’d rather do it much faster,” he said.

Democrats and the American Civil Liberties Union mapped out the ways they would try to block Trump’s wall. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said he would summon White House counsel Pat Cipollone to Capitol Hill to explain the White House’s rationale.

Trump looks to raid Pentagon budget for wall money using emergency powers

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat, said he planned to work with other states to take legal action against the White House. The ACLU said it was preparing a lawsuit of its own, arguing that Trump cannot legally redirect taxpayer money during an “emergency” unless it’s for military construction projects that support the armed forces. Friday afternoon, the advocacy group Public Citizen filed a suit in U.S. District Court in Washington, seeking to block Trump’s declaration on behalf of Texas landowners and an environmental group.

Democrats and several Republicans predicted a two-pronged response to the declaration: one, having Congress vote to reject it in the coming weeks, and two, suing Trump — or at least aiding other parties that attempt to intervene.

“The president’s actions clearly violate the Congress’s exclusive power of the purse, which our Founders enshrined in the Constitution,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. “The Congress will defend our constitutional authorities in the Congress, in the Courts, and in the public, using every remedy available.”

Most notably, Pelosi and Schumer said, “We call upon our Republican colleagues to join us to defend the Constitution.”

Republicans are divided over Trump’s declaration, with many unnerved by what they see as an executive power grab while others are unwilling to challenge the president ahead of 2020 presidential and congressional elections.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who faces a reelection race next year, suggested that it would be hypocritical for Republicans to support the emergency declaration after criticizing President Barack Obama for “executive overreach,” and he suggested that future Democratic presidents might follow Trump’s precedent.

Tillis described a future “President Bernie Sanders declaring a national emergency to implement the radical Green New Deal” or a “President Elizabeth Warren declaring a national emergency to shut down banks and take over the nation’s financial institutions.”

“I don’t believe in situational principles,” he said.

Other Republicans lodged an even more straightforward objection: Declaring a national emergency might prompt Trump to shift funds from other desperately needed projects.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (Tex.), the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, warned against tapping Defense Department and military construction accounts to build the wall.

“Doing so would have detrimental consequences for our troops,” he said in a Thursday statement. “And it would undercut one of the most significant accomplishments of the last two years — beginning to repair and rebuild our military. I hope that the president will pursue other options.”

The issue was more than a constitutional discussion for Republicans. Democrats signaled that they would proceed with a privileged resolution of disapproval that would force GOP lawmakers to either vote for Trump’s wall or oppose his emergency claim — with certain political repercussions.

By Friday afternoon, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) said he had gathered more than 60 co-sponsors for the resolution.

Such a measure would pass in the Democratic-controlled House, and more than enough Republicans could break ranks to ensure its Senate passage. But Trump is certain to veto the resolution, and Congress probably couldn’t muster enough votes to override a veto.

Democratic legislative staffers huddled on Capitol Hill at 2 p.m. Friday, shortly after the White House issued its proclamation. According to a senior Democratic aide, no decisions have been made on how Congress will proceed with a formal measure of disapproval, but House and Senate leaders are expected to move carefully to win over as many Republicans as possible.

An emergency declaration by Trump will lead to lawsuits. Lots of them.

The more serious threat to Trump’s move could be litigation, with numerous parties exploring legal challenges — including Democratic House leaders who have been examining various options for months.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said Thursday that he did not consider an emergency declaration to be “a practical solution” for Trump because litigation could keep any potential wall funding on hold for months or years while the lawsuits resolve themselves.

“I thought there were other, better alternatives,” he said.

White House officials want to approve projects and reallocate money as quickly as possible, but no timeline has been given.

Part of their strategy is to try to use eminent domain to seize private property along the border, particularly in Texas, where they want to install parts of the barrier. This is expected to open another round of legal challenges from private landowners.

Other parts of the approach are equally unclear. White House officials have not said, for example, how they plan to solicit bids on the projects or what type of process they will follow. Congressional Democrats and some state leaders, meanwhile, have vowed to try to stop the work before it can even begin.

Trump has long asserted that the United States is full of rapists, murderers and other violent criminals who enter illegally from Mexico, and he has pledged to address the situation by building a wall. Government data, though, shows that attempted border crossings remain near 40-year lows and that drug traffickers primarily attempt to smuggle hard narcotics through ports of entry, not through gaps between border barriers, as Trump has suggested.

The biggest challenge on the border in recent years has been a surge of families seeking to cross into the United States and claim asylum, overwhelming border agents and U.S. facilities.

White House officials plan to use $8 billion to build new fencing that they believe will block or discourage a wide range of immigrants.

Of that money, $1.375 billion was approved by Congress on Thursday, and it can be used for 55 miles of “pedestrian fencing” in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

The White House plans to use $600 million from the Treasury Department’s forfeiture funds account, which contains money seized by the federal government from a range of illicit activities.

An additional $2.5 billion would be redirected from a Pentagon program for countering drug activities, and a final $3.6 billion would be moved from military construction accounts. It’s that final pot of money that White House officials said required the national emergency declaration, as the White House is generally barred from moving money from one account to another without congressional approval.

Trump promised during the 2016 campaign to build a border wall and have Mexico finance it. Since becoming president, he has insisted instead that the money come from U.S. taxpayers.

White House officials said that more than 50 national emergencies have been declared since the 1970s, attempting to rebut concerns that Trump was outside his authority in taking this step.

“This is authority given to the president in law already,” said acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. “It’s not as if he just didn’t get what he wanted, so he’s waving a magic wand and taking a bunch of money.”

But some presidential historians said Trump’s move was unusual, in part because he stopped short of describing how it would ameliorate a situation that he hasn’t precisely defined. White House officials on Friday wouldn’t disclose where the new border barriers would be placed.

Presidents have taken extraordinary steps before, at times invoking crises facing the United States. Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War in 1861, making it easier to arrest someone without bringing the individual before a judge.

President Harry Truman tried to nationalize the steel industry in the 1950s amid tensions brought by the Korean War; he was rebuked by the Supreme Court.

Presidential scholars said Trump’s move on Friday, though extreme in its rhetoric, will be viewed much differently, even if he attempts to use the National Emergencies Act of 1976 to buttress his case. That’s because Trump isn’t responding to a crisis that’s evident to the American people but is instead taking action after Congress rejected his funding request for the past two years.

“It shrinks the importance of Congress even more,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian. “It is a wild-eyed imperial presidency.”

In his Rose Garden remarks, Trump suggested that he had already thought through the legal minefield that his decision was likely to traverse. He predicted that lower-court judges and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit would probably rule against him before the administration ultimately prevailed.

“We will have a national emergency, and we will then be sued, and they will sue us in the 9th Circuit, even though it shouldn’t be there, and we will possibly get a bad ruling and then we’ll get another bad ruling and then we’ll end up in the Supreme Court, and hopefully we will get a fair shake,” he said.

As part of the national emergency declaration, Trump signed a $333 billion spending bill that funds many government operations through September. This averted a government shutdown that would have begun Saturday.

President Trump on Feb. 15 outlined the legal battles he thinks his national emergency declaration will face in the coming days. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
President Trump acknowledged in his remarks Feb. 15 that his declaration of a national emergency would face court challenges. (Video: AP, Photo: Jabin Botsford/AP)

Josh Dawsey, Erica Werner, Seung Min Kim and Rachael Bade contributed to this report.