In a rambling speech from outside the White House in which he veered through topics as diverse as trade policy with China, his “great relationship” with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, and his own prospects of winning a Nobel Peace Prize — as Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale reported, via Twitter — Donald Trump on Friday declared a “national emergency” for the purposes of using government funds to construct a border wall that would seek to block off illegal passage between the United States and Mexico.
In the speech, per Dale’s account via Twitter, Trump claimed that because national emergencies have been declared by presidents “many times before,” that “nobody cares” about another emergency declaration, and that there has “rarely been a problem” when presidents call national emergencies.
While Trump was correct that “many” national emergencies have been declared by previous presidents — 58 in total since 1978, per ABC News — Trump’s new emergency declaration is the first of its kind, breaking new ground in the expansion of presidential powers. Until Friday, no president had ever called a national emergency expressly for the purpose of spending taxpayer cash on a project that Congress had refused to fund.
Under Article I of the United States Constitution, via the University of Chicago, Congress controls the government’s purse strings, with the power to impose taxes and to spend funds to “provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.”
Even though, as Atlantic Monthly recently documented, emergency declarations give presidents access to “more than 100 special provisions” allowing them to expand normal constitutional powers, a president’s authority to make what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (as quoted by Time) called “an end run around Congress” — seizing federal funds to use for programs that he is unable to persuade Congress to support — remains unclear.
Previous national emergency declarations range from the dramatic — such as President Franklin Roosevelt’s declaration of an “unlimited” emergency to protect the United States from a Nazi attack at the outset of World War II, per History.com, and President George W. Bush’s declaration of emergency following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — to more mundane matters such as the leveling of economic sanctions.
Trump himself declared a national emergency in December of 2017 in order to impose sanctions on 13 foreign individuals accused of severe human rights violations, according to a Pacific Standard report. In fact, Trump had declared a total of three national emergencies prior to Friday’s announcement.
Responding to Trump’s unprecedented national emergency order to seize taxpayer funds in order to use them for a border wall, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement — one quoted by the Associated Press — that Trump’s declaration would “shred the Constitution” by subverting the spending power of Congress granted by Article I.