It started on Aug. 10. That was the day Donald Trump, speaking from one of his golf resorts, used the words many in the public-health community wanted to hear.
“The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I’m saying officially, right now, it is an emergency,” the president said from Bedminster. “It’s a national emergency. We’re going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis.”
As regular readers know, Trump’s use of the word “officially” stood out because of its procedural significance: when a president makes an official emergency declaration, a series of steps are supposed to kick into action. NBC News reported at the time, “Experts said that the national emergency declaration would allow the executive branch to direct funds towards expanding treatment facilities and supplying police officers with the anti-overdose remedy naloxone.”
Yesterday, meanwhile, was Oct. 10 – exactly two months later – and the official written declaration still hasn’t happened. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), the man the president appointed to lead a White House opioid commission, conceded yesterday that Trump’s inaction is “not good.”
Christie said Tuesday that the commission’s recommendations are “lessened” without the declaration, but he says it’s too soon to say whether not declaring one has made things worse.
“I think the problem is too big to say that if he had declared an emergency two months ago that it would make a significant difference in two months,” Christie said. “But I would also say you can’t get those two months back. And so it’s not good that it hasn’t been done yet.”
The White House has been less than forthcoming in its explanation for why Trump verbally declared a national emergency two months ago, but has done nothing since. Yesterday’s Associated Press report added that officials have described the declaration usually reserved for natural disasters as an “involved process.”
In other words, there are some procedural complexities to this, which the administration still has to work through. And while that’s entirely plausible, it raises the related question of what in the world Trump was talking about in early August.
Northwestern University law professor Eugene Kontorovich said Trump was not breaking any new ground when he announced a national emergency but said “such a declaration does have to be transmitted to Congress in writing.”
“Relevant monies won’t be released until such a thing is signed,” Kontorovich told NBC News. “Usually presidents will announce something and sign it at the same time as a photo-op kind of thing. I say usually because Trump is famously more extemporaneous than a typical president.”
Indeed, it’s the president’s reputation for “extemporaneous” policy pronouncements that leads one to wonder whether Trump meant to “officially” declare a national opioid emergency in August, or whether he just blurted out a thought that came to his mind.
The president says all kinds of things, but there’s no reason to assume they reflect reality.