By the time House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) spoke to reporters yesterday afternoon, the White House had already confirmed Donald Trump's plan: the president would sign the bipartisan spending bill, thereby preventing another shutdown, and then issue an emergency declaration to build a wall.
The California Democrat quickly turned her attention to one of Republican lawmakers' top concerns: what future presidents might do with the same power Trump is claiming today.
"I know the Republicans have some unease about it no matter what they say, because if the president can declare an emergency on something that he has created as an emergency, an illusion that he wants to convey, just think of what a president with different values can present to the American people."You want to talk about a national emergency? Let's talk about today, the one-year anniversary of another manifestation of the epidemic of gun violence in America. That's a national emergency. Why don't you declare that emergency, Mr. President? I wish you would."But a Democratic president can do that. Democratic president can declare emergencies as well. So, the precedent that the president is setting here is something that should be met with great unease and dismay by the Republicans."
Of course, Pelosi wasn't just speaking hypothetically. There are already some Republicans feeling "great unease" over this.
As we discussed a month ago, Erick Erickson, a prominent voice in conservative media, wrote on Twitter, “When the next Democratic president declares a national emergency over gun violence and takes executive actions to curtail gun purchases, you can thank the people urging Donald Trump to do the same with regards to the border.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) raised the same concern on CNBC, though he pointed to a different issue.
The Florida Republican contended that Trump was elected on the promise of building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and the president has to “keep that promise.” But “we have to be careful about endorsing broad uses of executive power,” he added. “I’m not prepared to endorse that right now.”Such a declaration would set a precedent, Rubio said. “If today, the national emergency is border security … tomorrow the national emergency might be climate change.”
There are some statutory limits about emergency powers to consider, but broadly speaking, these conservatives are right to be concerned. Once the door is open, and presidents start pursuing their ambitions in defiance of Congress, it isn’t just Republicans who’ll walk through that opening.
In fact, Rubio’s example is of particular interest – since the climate crisis, unlike the need for a giant border wall, is real. In fact, as NBC News’ Benjy Sarlin explained, if a Democratic president were to try such a move, “compared to the wall, there would be tons of government studies and testimony from [national security] officials backing up a crisis frame.”
Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) appeared on CNN in January and was asked how he’d react if a Democratic president followed in Trump’s footsteps, tried to declare a “national emergency” on climate change, and began taking actions outside of congressional approval. The far-right Alabaman didn’t seem eager to talk about it.
Before they decide whether to let this stand, congressional Republicans should probably have an uncomfortable conversation.
Postscript: Just for the record, there's no reason to limit our focus to the next president. Trump is granting himself new powers to redirect funds in defiance of Congress' wishes, but how sure are we that he won't do something similar before leaving office?
I can't say whether Trump will win a second term or whether one of his many scandals will bring his presidency to a premature end. But I can say Trump will almost certainly remain in office for a while longer, and if he can get away with circumventing the rule of law on this issue, it's very easy to believe he may pursue other priorities the same way.