Trump’s Emergency Subverts Separation of Powers

Ever since President Donald J. Trump won the election in 2016, the business mogul’s unconventional methods have continuously shocked Americans. Some are disgusted by his aggressive leadership while others seem pleasantly surprised. Declaring a national emergency to fund his border produced the same polarized responses.

Because Congress has been blocking the path to build his wall, Trump decided to simply bypass it by declaring a national emergency. The decision was the most efficient way to get what he wanted, a skillful maneuver in the eyes of any businessman. In hopes of justifying his actions, Trump has stretched the definition of “emergency,” calling illegal immigration a matter of drug cartels and human traffickers “invading our country.”

Declaring a national emergency is not unprecedented. In fact, between 1978 and 2018, presidents have used 58 such declarations to temporarily consolidate executive power. The difference, however, between the past 58 times and the one suggested by Trump, is the motive behind the decision: This is the first time an emergency declaration is being used to circumvent Congressional consent so that the executive can pursue a politically unpopular program.

In Trump’s case, a national emergency serves solely to work around Congress. Appropriating funds has always been firmly placed in the hands of the legislature, which is why it consists of so many different members and requires a two-thirds majority vote to pass most decisions. By diverting financial resources into his own hands, Trump can get started on building his wall as soon as possible.

Time is of the essence for Trump. In 2020, he will once again have to face the people to whom he had confidently promised a massive wall. During his 2016 presidential campaign, much of his appeal stemmed from the stark contrast between him and other candidates, whose extensive political backgrounds attracted reputations for delivering empty promises. In other words, not being a politician gave him an edge. Yet during Trump’s administration, it’s been politics as usual.

Trump likely felt pressured to declare the national emergency because he had made the wall a fundamental part of his campaign. His yet unfulfilled promise may initially appear as just a sign of inefficient government, but underneath the inefficiency lies a fundamental concept that is crucial to the democracy we have today. Checks and balances complicate the implementation process, making it difficult for legislators’ suggestions to become policy. Numerous sessions are required, and a majority must support the proposed action. Though this tedious process may disappoint the people, it prevents radical or extreme governmental action from taking place. Trump is no exception to this process, and in 2014 he made the same claim for former President Obama. Dealing with the same issue of border control, then-President Obama issued an executive order to prevent the immediate deportation of “DREAMers.” Trump blatantly accused him of “[subverting] the Constitution of the U.S. for his own benefit” because he was “unable to negotiate with Congress.”

While Trump may have lived up to his promise to build a border wall, Mexico will not be paying for it. His empty promises and flagrant self-contradictions suggest that holding the presidential office for just over two years might have made a politician out of him after all.

Though Trump may have gotten away with abusing loopholes as a businessman, the nature of the presidency requires different behavior. The executive branch should not be able to hijack the power of the purse, especially if a legislative majority expresses opposition. Without enough legislative support for Trump’s proposed border wall, he must find a different means to increase border security — even if that entails an unfulfilled promise by the 2020 presidential election.

The time-consuming process of deliberation and debate that Trump is proposing to skip over is how an unbalanced power distribution is prevented. If he repurposes the national emergency declaration to exclude Congress from the policymaking process, he will gain a dangerous amount of unprecedented power.

Grace Yang (22C) is from Vancouver, Wash.

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