Can Trump declare a state of emergency?

photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Upon reading Elizabeth Goitein’s “What the President Could Do If He Declares a State of Emergency” in The Atlantic, my dismay spurred me to write the previous post. In “Our democracy may not be as robust as we think,” I considered a few of the disasters Trump would be empowered to inflict on the American public by declaring a state of emergency.

After publishing the post, I began to read The New York Times, and almost immediately came upon Bruce Ackerman’s “No, Trump Cannot Declare an ‘Emergency’ to Build His Wall,” The title promised to contradict all I had written based on Goitein’s article.

But Ackerman’s article was nuanced.

He refers to laws that would seem to prevent the president from suspending civil liberties and imposing martial law or build his wall. The first is a provision in a statute of 1878 that expressly forbids the willful use of “any part of the Army or the Air Force to execute a law domestically” unless “authorized by the Constitution or an act of Congress.” Then he refers to another statute from 1807 that directs the secretary of defense to “ensure that any activity (including the provision of any equipment or facility or the assignment or detail of any personnel)” will “not include or permit direct participation by a member of the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps in a search, seizure, arrest, or other similar activity … unless authorized by law.”

Would Trump respect these statutes? For that matter, is he even aware of them? Is anyone in his cabinet or on his staff sufficiently conversant with the law to attempt to curb his illegal impulses? We have seen Trump compose executive orders and issue commands without seeking legal advice, unaware that he may be violating the Constitution or the laws of the land. His M.O. is “Act first, think later (if ever).” Knowing the presidency confers great power, Trump seems to think there are no restraints. If he were to declare an emergency, there would be a delay before the courts or Congress could thwart him. 

Ackerman admits that the laws he refers to “do contain a series of carefully crafted exceptions to the general rule.” He concedes that Trump might take advantage of the exception which authorizes the military to detain suspected terrorists. That’s not a stretch, since the President has repeatedly characterized migrants who cross the border illegally as terrorists.

But Ackerman believes that “it is an unconscionable stretch to use this proviso to support using the military for operations against the desperate refugees from Central America seeking asylum in our country.” It is “unconscionable” for a moral and compassionate person, but Trump has repeatedly demonstrated that he is neither. He has already gassed them.

The National Emergencies Act “formalize[s] the power of Congress to provide certain checks and balances on the emergency powers of the President,” writes Ackerman. It gives the House the right to rescind a state of emergency declared by the president and requires the Senate to ratify within 15 days. It seems foolishly optimistic to trust that the the legislators in the current divided Congress could come together in both houses long enough to pass a resolution.

Yet, in a neat twist of logic, Ackerman argues that Congress would intervene:

Since President Trump’s “emergency” declaration would be a direct response to his failure to convince Congress that national security requires his wall, it is hard to believe that a majority of the Senate, if forced to vote, would accept his show of contempt for their authority.

Hmm. That remains to be seen.

Finally, Ackerman concedes that, despite the legal obstacles that confront him, Trump could well declare a state of emergency. “He will likely take the most irresponsible path possible, issuing his ‘national emergency’ through a tweet or a question-begging written pronunciamento.”

We have reason to be very concerned.

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