Why Trump hasn't invoked emergency powers yet on wall funding

January 11, 2019 18:03
US President Donald Trump speaks on border security during an address from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. Photo: Bloomberg

On Tuesday night (Wednesday morning, Hong Kong time), US President Donald Trump gave a televised speech to his nation to discuss the "security and humanitarian crisis” in the south and make the case for federal funding for his proposed wall along the US-Mexico border.

However, contrary to widespread predictions, while Trump did blame the Democrats for the ongoing partial shutdown of the federal government, he didn’t declare a national state of emergency as a way to bypass Congress and secure funding for the wall, as he had vowed to do so beforehand.

Even more surprising was that throughout his eight-minute speech from the Oval Office, Trump only mentioned the wall very briefly, while spending most of the time explaining to his fellow Americans how illegal immigrants were posing an imminent threat to the American society and economy, and even the lives of US citizens, by citing a lot of official figures.

In our opinion, there may be two reasons why Trump was somewhat restrained during his speech.

First, he could have been attempting to rally public support, particularly among African and Latino Americans, for his proposal to enhance border security by putting overwhelming emphasis on the correlation between the influx of illegal aliens and the rampant drug, violence and sex slavery problems across the United States.

Second, as far as Trump is concerned, declaring a national state of emergency is only a means rather than the end. Unless his talks with Democratic leaders completely fall flat, he is unlikely to resort to that ultimate means.

That said, it appears Trump's tactic of “humanitarianizing” the border security issue by pulling sentimental wording in his speech has failed to produce any tangible effect in breaking the ongoing stalemate over wall funding and ending the federal government shutdown.

Later on, after fruitless “shutdown talks” with Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi publicly accused the president of holding the American people hostage in order to serve his political purposes, while Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer stressed that the only way to end the current gridlock is to handle the disputes over government shutdown and border security separately.

And it seems US public opinion is increasing turning against Trump.

According to the latest survey jointly conducted by Reuters and IPSOS, 51 percent of Americans believed Trump should bear the biggest responsibility for the partial federal government shutdown, while only 32 percent blamed it on the Democrats.

Apparently, the longer the stalemate continues, the more unpopular Trump is likely to become.

Under the US constitution, the American president has the power to declare a national state of emergency when the country is facing serious threats such as grave natural disasters, massive disease outbreaks, or war.

The problem is, since the US is now neither at war nor suffering nationwide natural disasters or epidemics, there is simply no justification for Trump to invoke his special powers to declare a state of emergency in the country.

Besides, given the fact that the influx of illegal immigrants has been going on for years, Trump may appear too blatant and gratuitous in trying to serve his agenda at the expense of political decency if he “hijacks” the state of emergency order at this point.

Worse still, if Trump really invokes his special presidential powers, it might trigger a wave of legal challenges or even, in the worst case scenario, a constitutional mayhem.

This may be another fundamental reason why Trump is holding back from declaring a national state of emergency, for the time being.

Compared to those of other nations, the US constitution is relatively vague about when and how a “national state of emergency” should be declared, so there are quite a lot of grey areas and potential for abuse when it comes to invoking the special presidential powers.

All in all, with Trump threatening twice during the past week that he is seriously considering using such powers, but making no move yet, it suggests that there are some complicated political calculations going on in his mind.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 10

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal