White House struggles to defend unprecedented Trump declaration

Image: Senior White House Advisor Stephen Miller waits to go on the air in the White House Briefing Room in Washington
Senior White House Advisor Stephen Miller waits to go on the air in the White House Briefing Room in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua...

When Donald Trump arrived at the White House's Rose Garden on Friday morning, the public already knew he would declare a national emergency at the border and grant himself the power to redirect funds in defiance of Congress' wishes. It just took him a while to get there.

The president meandered for a long while, referencing a variety of other issues that were on his mind, before eventually getting to the point.

"So I'm going to be signing a national emergency. And it's been signed many times before. It's been signed by other presidents from 1977 or so. It gave the presidents the power."There's rarely been a problem. They sign it; nobody cares. I guess they weren't very exciting. But nobody cares. They sign it for far less important things, in some cases, in many cases. We're talking about an invasion of our country with drugs, with human traffickers, with all types of criminals and gangs."

Looking past Trump's unintentionally amusing use of "so..." -- he seemed to treat the emergency declaration as an afterthought -- his underlying point was that previous presidents relied on similar powers without incident, so there's no reason to make a fuss about his latest gambit. It's all perfectly in line with the law and modern precedent.

Except that's wrong. As multiple fact-checkers were quick to note, other presidents have made use of the National Emergencies Act, but no American chief executive has ever used the law to circumvent Congress and redirect federal funds in defiance of lawmakers' wishes.

All of which led to an interesting exchange between Fox News' Chris Wallace and Stephen Miller, one of Trump's far-right White House aides.

The host reminded Miller that Article 1, Section 9, Clause 7, of the U.S. Constitution reads, "No money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in consequence of appropriations made by law." Wallace asked whether Trump is ignoring this by claiming the power to redirect funds against Congress' wishes, at which point Miller pointed to the National Emergency Act (which, the last time I checked, does not supersede the Constitution).

It led to this back and forth:

WALLACE: But let's talk about national emergencies. National emergencies have been declared 59 times since 1976 when the law was passed, The National Emergencies Act. Can you point to a single incident, even one, where the president asked Congress for money, Congress refused to give him that money, and the president then evokes national emergency powers to get the money?MILLER: First of all --WALLACE: Can you find one case?MILLER: What you're missing, Chris, is that national emergencies don't have all the same authorities and the same justification.WALLACE: I assume that, but there have been 59. Can you find one case like that? ... Answer my question, can you name one case where a president has asked Congress for money, Congress has refused and the president has then evoked national policy to get the money anyway?

The White House senior policy adviser dodged. He had no good answer because there is no good answer.

When the president makes the case that he's simply doing what other modern presidents have done, there's no reason to believe him.