Imagine an internet that restricts access to certain websites, including social media platforms; search engines programmed to return only positive results to queries for “Trump”; email that is monitored, censored, even blocked. Does that sound fanciful, an impossibility in our American democracy? Perhaps. Yet the threat is real.
The current issue of The Atlantic has an alarming report written by Elizabeth Goitein, the Co-director of the Liberty and National Security program at The Brennan Center for Justice. Goitein delineates the formidable emergency powers that are available to the president during a national emergency. The article, “What the President Could Do If He Declares a State of Emergency,” is an eye-opener. Everyone should read it.
By announcing the mere threat of war, for example, the president could assume control of all communications, most likely including the internet. He could do so by invoking a law that has been on the books since 1942, when fears of invasion during World War II justified extraordinary executive power. Though it didn’t exist when the law was written, the internet today is a vital component of communications.
The Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law has tallied 123 statutory provisions that grant the president broad emergency powers the moment he declares an emergency. Moreover, the president himself may determine what constitutes an emergency, because the statutes do not define it. In addition, there is no judicial review, nor a requirement that Congress ratify the president’s appropriation of exceptional power. Though Congress could vote to end the state of emergency with a two-thirds, veto-proof majority in both houses, what are the chances of that happening today?
The Insurrection Act of 1807, modified over the years, allows the president to employ military troops to enforce the authority of the federal government in cases of lawlessness, insurrection and rebellion. Trump could deploy armed forces domestically wherever he saw fit, because the statute does not define the specific conditions that constitute an emergency. The law is vague enough that Trump could, for example, authorize tanks to patrol the streets, rounding up political protesters and undocumented migrants. President Eisenhower invoked this law in 1957 to enforce desegregation of the schools in Arkansas with federal troops.
Authoritarians routinely declare states of emergency to impose their will forcefully on their people. Trump admires tyrants like Turkey’s Erdoğan and Duterte of the Philippines — why wouldn’t he follow their examples? After all, Trump is not inhibited by respect for or even knowledge of the law or of the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.
Trump continues to attack the free press because it persists in calling him to account. The President riles up his followers and advocates the imprisonment of a political rival. He denies Muslims entry to the U.S. Clearly, Trump has no reverence for the basic freedoms of the press, speech and religion. Gotein cites Geoffrey R. Stone, a constitutional-law scholar at the University of Chicago, who observed that “It would not take much to upset the [Supreme Court’s] current understanding of the First Amendment.”
“Indeed,” Goitein remarks wryly, “all it would take is five Supreme Court justices whose commitment to presidential power exceeds their commitment to individual liberties.”
Presidents in living memory have exercised emergency powers. Citing imminent threat to America, President Franklin Roosevelt defied the Constitution by interning U.S. citizens of Japanese descent. More recently, President George W. Bush authorized warrantless wiretapping and torture after 9/11.
In view of the latent perils to democracy that are now immediately available to President Trump, Gotein urges the American public to inform itself. We must insist that Congress repeal obsolete laws and limit the ones that contain the potential for abuse. The newly Democratic House must begin the review process in committees so that a future Democratic Senate can ratify the changes.
The time to act is now, before Trump or another president declares an emergency that gives him limitless power.