Will Trump's National Emergency Be a Pyrrhic Victory?

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Most Republicans saw it coming for weeks. After taking a beating from his base for losing his shutdown fight against Speaker Nancy Pelosi, President Trump was determined to regain his footing.

Building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border was the singular promise that defined his 2016 campaign — and declaring a national emergency is the only way left to demonstrate his continued resolve after Congress tied his hands this week and give him only a paltry down payment for the undertaking.

The budget compromise Congress passed Thursday to avert another government shutdown contains only $1.375 billion for 55 miles of new border barrier, much less than the $5.7 billion for 200 miles that Trump had sought.

So what if declaring a national emergency angers the establishment on both sides of the aisle in the process? That’s exactly the type of in-your-face contempt for Washington norms that handed Trump the White House keys in the first place and will likely invigorate his troops girding for what will undeniably be one of the nastiest re-election fights in history.

The president’s allies cheered the emergency declaration as a way to continue portraying Democrats as the party of open borders. Even though polls show most Americans don’t favor a wall, the out-of-the mainstream label is hardly a leap when combative young Democrats are pushing a 70 percent top tax rate and jettisoning plane travel while some party leaders want to expand a woman’s right to choose to late-term abortions.

Even before the president’s announcement, Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s strongest defenders in the Senate and someone who normally pushes for increased defense spending, was signaling his support for redirecting money from military construction projects in order to get the wall funded.

“Go into the defense bill and move money around…and build this damn wall,” Graham told Fox News Wednesday  night. “…Declare this a national emergency, because it is. Move money around and secure this border.”

Rush Limbaugh was also fully on board. “If they have to declare a national emergency and go through the courts and have the Democrats go through the motions of trying to stop it, then all the better,” he said before Trump’s announcement. “Let Democrats demonstrate as often and as loudly as they can, they do not want border security.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who considers himself an institutionalist, also gave his seal of approval Thursday, along with members of the House Freedom Caucus, those limited-government advocates who repeatedly rapped President Obama for his reliance on executive actions to circumvent Congress.

But if those endorsements sounded a little half-hearted, there are plenty of reasons why. For starters, Trump’s re-election is a tossup at best and many conservatives worry future Democratic presidents will utilize national emergencies precedent to push through their priorities such as elements of the Green New Deal or gun control.

Also, there are also far more Senate Republicans up for re-election than Democrats this cycle – 22 GOP seats are on the line, while Democrats only need to protect a dozen. Republicans slightly expanded their majority last November, but they still hold just a slim edge of 53 to 47 Democrats, including two independents.

Trump has benefited immensely from the GOP Senate majority, which helped him fill two Supreme Court vacancies and numerous lesser judicial seats. If Republicans maintain their Senate majority in a second Trump term, they will provide the only firewall he has to prevent Democrats from bouncing him out of office via impeachment proceedings.

While those prospects right now look good, Republicans’ hold on the upper chamber is far from certain. That 2020 stage is already being set: Democratic media darling Beto O’Rourke met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer last week to talk about a potential run against Sen. John Cornyn, a top GOP leader.

O’Rourke’s presidential ambitions recently suffered a self-inflicted wound when he bizarrely posted a photo of his trip to the dentist on Instagram. But he remains a near-giant killer, having come close to beating Sen. Ted Cruz in the once ruby red state of Texas. If O’Rourke takes a pass, former Obama Health and Human Services Secretary Julian Castro, who has announced his own White House bid, is also waiting in the wings.

Little wonder why Cornyn has been downright glum about Trump’s decision to declare a national emergency.

“I think it’s a dangerous move,” he said Thursday. “One, because of the precedent it sets. Two, because the president is going to get sued and it won’t succeed in accomplishing his goal, and three, because I think Mrs. Pelosi will then introduce a resolution which will pass the House, then come over here and divide Republicans. So it strikes me as not a good strategy.”

Meanwhile, the national emergency declaration likely boosts the re-election campaigns of Republicans like Graham and McConnell who represent states that went to Trump by high margins. Still, with Republicans defending nearly twice as many seats as Democrats this cycle, odds are Republicans will lose some of them – the question is only how many.

Making that row tougher to hoe for any fellow Republican is a risky gambit at a time when a member of the new class of combative freshmen Dems is dropping the f-bomb while calling for Trump’s impeachment.

The National Emergency Act gives presidents the ability to declare national emergencies but lays out a process by which Congress can terminate such a declaration by joint resolution. Such a resolution would be considered “privileged,” meaning if the House passed it then the Senate would be required by law to vote on it within 18 days. There would be no way for McConnell to block it.

If the joint resolution were to pass and Trump vetoed it, there’s little chance that two-thirds of the Senate would vote to override his action. But the real problem is that it would force Republicans to go on the record – by casting an up or down vote – for the first time on Trump’s full-scale border wall.

Some are referring to such a resolution as a political grenade – forcing Republicans to choose between backing their president on his signature issue or voting against what many conservatives believe is a dangerous precedent for executive overreach.

Democratic House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler issued a statement Thursday night saying he would “fully support” the passage of such a resolution and would pursue “all other available legal options” to halt Trump’s national emergency declaration.

Sen. Susan Collins, a centrist Republican from Maine who is also up for re-election this cycle, not surprisingly called Trump’s decision “a mistake.”

She said the National Emergencies Act was intended to apply to major natural disasters or catastrophic events, such as the “attacks on our country on 9/11.”

“Such a declaration would undermine the role of Congress and the appropriations process; it’s just not good policy,” she said in a statement issued Thursday night. “…It is also of dubious constitutionality, and it will almost certainly be challenged in the courts.”

Pelosi herself said she might take legal action to challenge Trump’s authority, while Public Citizen, a left-leaning consumer rights advocacy organization, promised to sue if Trump moves forward with the declaration.

“If this invocation of emergency on false pretenses is tolerated, it could justify almost limitless abuses of presidential and military power, including far-reaching clampdowns on civil rights,” the group said.

“Ultimately, this is illegal. If we are to have any faith in the courts, they must step in and stop it,” Sam Berger, vice president for democracy and government reform at the Center for American Progress, told RealClearPolitics.

Those squarely behind building the wall believe Trump could break ground on a pilot building project with part of the money Congress did provide while waiting for the Supreme Court to weigh in.

“He could build a prototype wall and then track the crime and other statistics related to its construction,” Matt O’Brien, the director of research at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said in an interview. “If then you see a 70 percent decrease in crime and a similar decrease in attempts to get over the border, he has a good argument that walls work.

“But he’s a guy who likes big deals and big projects – so he might go for getting as much of the project as possible,” O’Brien said.  

Trump’s go-big-or-go-home gambit helps him energize his base, something he must do to have a shot at holding the White House. If it works, it’s a great short-term solution, but he can’t count on Senate Republicans being with him on the other side to keep him in office long past the balloon drop and confetti.

Susan Crabtree is a veteran Washington reporter who has spent two decades covering the White House and Congress.

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