How a Trump Emergency Declaration Became the Mother of All Headaches

When the Daily Caller asked President Trump during a recent interview if former Speaker Paul Ryan had lied or “played” him when he promised that he’d get funding for his wall, Trump said that he didn’t know for sure. According to the president, Ryan had begged him to sign an omnibus spending bill that included a big increase in military spending but no money for a physical barrier at the border.

TRUMP: Well, I was going to veto the omnibus bill and Paul told me in the strongest of language, ‘Please don’t do that, we’ll get you the wall.’ And I said, ‘I hope you mean that, because I don’t like this bill,’ although I love the bill for what it did for the military. And therefore, if it weren’t for the military, I would have vetoed it.

Just so you understand, our military needed funding desperately. Totally depleted. And this bill was great for the military. Had I vetoed it, you would never have gotten the numbers back that I got. 700 and 716 billion dollars over the past two years. Which is substantially more — much more than President Obama was able to get for the military.

So that was a negative, but a big factor as to why that was the reason I signed it. But another very big factor was the fact that Paul told me in the strongest of terms that, ‘please sign this and if you sign this we will get you that wall.’

Obviously, Ryan did not keep that promise. Trump said that maybe Ryan had intended to keep it, at the time, but that he’d lost the power to accomplish his pledge when he announced his retirement and became a lame duck speaker.

The omnibus bill Trump was referring to was signed in March 2018 and Paul Ryan announced he would not seek reelection on April 11, 2018. When Trump reluctantly agreed to the March spending bill, he stated, “I say to Congress, I will never sign another bill like this again.” But the omnibus only provided funding through the end of the fiscal year, which ends annually on September 30.

So, right around Labor Day, the congressional Republicans found themselves in the uncomfortable position of needing to convince Trump to sign off on a new spending bill with no wall-funding, which he had promised he would never do.

The top two Republicans in Congress arrived at the White House [in the first week in September] armed with props aimed at flattering and cajoling President Trump out of shutting down the government at the end of this month.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) showed the president glossy photos of a wall under construction along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) brought an article from the Washington Examiner that described Trump as brilliantly handling the current budget process, and portrayed the GOP as unified and breaking through years of dysfunction.

Their message, according to two people briefed on the meeting: The budget process is going smoothly, the wall is already ­being built, and there’s no need to shut down the government. Instead, they sought to persuade Trump to put off a fight for more border wall money until after the November midterm elections, promising to try then to get him the outcome he wants…

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Ryan did not want Trump to cause a government shutdown in the lead-up to the midterms. They were desperate enough on that point to bring glossy photos that misleadingly suggested that Trump’s wall was already under construction. They told him that they would try to get his money after the midterm elections were over, but they privately knew that they did not have the votes to accomplish that.

GOP leaders are convinced that they don’t have the votes to appropriate the money even now, when they control both chambers of Congress. They are trying to avoid a messy fight just ahead of the midterms.

They chose not to emphasize the point that the votes were not there at the time and would not be there after the midterms either.

Trump was given assurances at the White House meeting Wednesday that he will have GOP support for the wall funding once the midterm elections are over, said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).

“He is very passionate about getting a vote on and, again, getting wall funding,” said Thune, who attended the meeting. “And I think that what we’ve tried to do is convince him that the best way to do that is to fund the government, get our work done and litigate that another . . . day. . . . I felt like coming out of that meeting that everybody was in the same place.”

Thune said Republican leaders believe that shutting down the government could lead the GOP to lose a number of congressional races in “these districts that we need to win to keep the House.”

The key point is that, for the second time, the congressional leaders succeeded in convincing Trump to keep the government open. In the latter case,  they promised to work for the wall-funding after the midterms. Yet, after the midterms, they worked out a deal with the Democrats to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government open that did not include the promised funding for the wall. You can call this a broken promise since that’s exactly what it is, but it was only possible because the president was too stupid to understand the basic problem. They did not have the votes for his stupid wall in March, they didn’t have them in September, and the would not have them during the post-midterms lame duck session of Congress either.

What they had succeeded in doing twice was avoiding a government shutdown, and they seemed to convince Trump to avoid a government shutdown in December, too. The Senate passed a continuing resolution to keep the government open on an unanimous voice vote only to see Trump turn on a dime and force a 35-day shutdown when he was stung by criticism from some of his staunchest supporters.

The Democrats had retaken control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections, so now Trump was trying to force a Democratic Speaker to do what a Republican one had been unable to accomplish.  To say this was a long-shot is an understatement, which is why the president quickly began rooting around for a way out of the crisis he had created that would allow him to save some face.

When someone mentioned to him that he might use emergency powers to bypass Congress’s power of the purse and divert funding to his wall, he seized on the idea as a way to exercise some leverage and to perhaps have a fallback plan.

In the Senate, the idea had a certain appeal. The Republicans there felt betrayed when the president ignored their unanimous vote to fund the government and instead forced a shutdown. They did not want to have to override the president’s veto to force the government open again. If he would agree to sign their spending bill and end the shutdown, it would get the problem off their plate. An emergency declaration would get tied up in the courts and would ultimately fail, and they could, in the meantime, get back to their normal routine.

So, a few Republican senators embraced Trump’s threat thinking it was better than complete capitulation or having to take on the president’s supporters. But then someone who understands congressional procedure and the law realized that there was a fatal flaw in this plan. Rather than getting the Senate off a hot seat, it would quickly put them on an open flame.

Mr. [Mitch] McConnell, according to three people familiar with his thinking, has grown increasingly frustrated with the White House in recent days, telling associates that he thinks members of the president’s staff have failed to adequately brief him on the legislative and political perils of moving ahead with a disaster declaration.

During his White House meeting, disclosed by The Washington Post, Mr. McConnell predicted that Speaker Nancy Pelosi would have the House immediately pass a “resolution of disapproval” attempting to block him from using existing funding for the wall.

Any senator from either party could then demand a vote, because the resolution would be deemed “privileged.” Mr. McConnell told Mr. Trump that he would have no choice but to schedule a floor vote on the measure within 15 days, and Republican aides have estimated that between three and 10 Republicans would side with the chamber’s Democrats against Mr. Trump.

That would force the president into a politically costly effort to keep the Senate from overriding his veto of the resolution, even as Democrats moved to block him in the courts.

The emergency or disaster declaration would force a Senate vote of approval or disapproval, meaning that every member would have to go on the record on a plan designed to usurp their spending powers. They would not have the votes to win, which would infuriate the base and put the president in another difficult and humiliating position.

Needless to say, Congress never actually approved of the emergency plan on the merits. The Republicans simply saw it as a way to end the standoff that would keep them from having to confront their own president. But the plan would not come close to accomplishing that. First, they would rebuke the president’s emergency declaration and then they’d have to decide whether to override his veto.

The veto override vote would be particularly painful. They would have already experienced a rupture with their base and with the White House, so any hope of avoiding those outcomes would be in the rearview window. On the merits, the emergency plan was bad politics, an usurpation of their powers, and still likely to be struck down by the courts. But they had humored the president in the idea long enough that they couldn’t get him off it.

Mr. Trump is not expected to declare the state of emergency during Tuesday’s [State of the Union] address. But he continues to threaten that he will divert funding for other military and infrastructure projects to build the wall, with or without congressional approval. He has told people close to him that he views the threat as his last remaining leverage in the fight.

It’s an astonishing failure on the congressional Republicans’ part that they have so thoroughly failed to influence the president that he still thinks the emergency threat is creating leverage on the Democrats. The Republicans certainly have the excuse that Trump just cannot understand or accept basic facts, but they’ve tried to manage this problem by leading him on. At first, it was just triage. If they could avoid a shutdown today then they could worry about the wall-funding problem later. Then, when the shutdown finally came, it was the flawed idea that an emergency declaration would be the least painful way to end it.

So, now they’re in the position of trying to talk Trump out of declaring an emergency because it will present them with the worst of all possible worlds. It’s a problem that they have richly earned.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com