Politics

Updated at 11:45 a.m. ET

Calling it “a great thing to do,” President Trump declared a national emergency Friday in order to help finance a long-promised wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s a highly unusual move from an unconventional president.

The move came a day after Congress approved a spending bill giving Trump more than $1.3 billion in border security funding, far short of the $5.7 billion he originally claimed was necessary for a border wall.

In circuitous remarks in the Rose Garden, Trump said he was declaring an emergency because of “an invasion or our country with drugs, with human traffickers, with all types of criminals and gangs.”

Illegal border crossings in the most recent fiscal year (ending in September 2018) were actually lower than in either 2016 or 2014 and much lower than at their peak around 2000, as NPR has previously fact-checked. Many of the most recent arrivals are Central American migrants seeking asylum, citing a fear of violence or persecution back home.

As Trump spoke, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., issued a statement sharply critical of the president’s action. The statement said, in part:

“The President’s unlawful declaration over a crisis that does not exist does great violence to our Constitution and makes America less safe, stealing from urgently needed defense funds for the security of our military and our nation. …

“The President’s actions clearly violate the Congress’s exclusive power of the purse, which our Founders enshrined in the Constitution. The Congress will defend our constitutional authorities in the Congress, in the Courts, and in the public, using every remedy available.”

White House officials say Trump’s executive action, including the emergency declaration, will free up a total of about $8 billion for border wall construction. That includes the $1.375 billion in the funding bill passed by Congress on Thursday.

The balance of the funds include:

  • $600 million from the Treasury drug forfeiture fund.
  • Some $2.5 billion from counter drug activities with the Department of Defense, and some reprogramming from other Pentagon accounts.
  • Some $3.6 billion in military construction funds.

No disaster money will be used as part of this plan.

White House officials say the $8 billion should allow Trump to build as much wall as he wanted to, had Congress authorized the $5.7 billion he asked for — 234 miles of barrier. Officials say plans are to construct a metal bollard barrier, not a concrete wall, at locations to be determined by Customs and Border Protection.

Trump’s effort to augment a border barrier funding compromise crafted by Congress in order to still get the wall that he’s long promised his supporters is also a risky gambit. Legal challenges and push back from even some within his own party await Trump in the next phase of the ongoing national political battle over border security and immigration policy — cementing the issues at the forefront of his bid for a second term.

Trump said Friday he expected such legal challenges, and predicted they would eventually reach the Supreme Court, where he said “we’ll win, I think.”

“I didn’t need to do this,” Trump said in response to a reporter’s question about the emergency declaration. “I just want to get it done faster, that’s all.”

Centrist Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who’s up for re-election in 2020, called Trump’s planned move a “mistake” in a statement Thursday. Collins also argued that the National Emergencies Act, which Trump is likely to invoke, was only “intended to apply to major natural disasters or catastrophic events, such as the attacks on our country.”

“Such a declaration would undermine the role of Congress and the appropriations process; it’s just not good policy. It also sets a bad precedent for future Presidents — both Democratic and Republican — who might seek to use this same maneuver to circumvent Congress to advance their policy goals. It is also of dubious constitutionality, and it will almost certainly be challenged in the courts,” Collins said.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn represents Texas, which includes the border region that Trump has claimed is being overrun with drugs and undocumented immigrants, necessitating a drastic response. Cornyn expressed reservations about the president’s decision.

“My concerns about an emergency declaration were the precedent it would establish,” he said. “I also thought it would not be a practical solution because there would be a lawsuit filed immediately and the money would presumably be balled up associated with that litigation. I thought there were other, better alternatives.”

But to Trump, declaring a national emergency likely seems to be the only way he can claim victory after weeks of back-and-forth over funding for border security.

The bipartisan spending bill and border security compromise legislators presented him with would have given him only $1.375 billion for border barriers — roughly the same amount of money for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border as was given to him back in December, before a record 35-day partial government shutdown, and far short of the $5.7 billion that had remained his sticking point throughout negotiations that have lasted weeks.

Another shutdown would have been risky, too, and there wasn’t much appetite for going that route again among congressional Republicans.

But there’s little support among the public for Trump’s approach either. A CNN poll earlier this month showed Americans oppose — by more than 2-to-1 — Trump using a national emergency declaration to build a border wall.

That seems to be one of the messages Democratic leaders will home in on during what’s likely to be a new phase in the standoff over border security.

In the Democrats’ Spanish-language response to Trump’s State of the Union earlier this month, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said he would sue the administration if Trump declared a national emergency to find funds for a border wall.

In a statement Thursday, Becerra doubled down on his earlier commitment.

“Any crisis on our border is of President Trump’s own making: family separations, child detention, turning our backs on asylum seekers, and more. There is no national emergency. If Trump oversteps his authority and abandons negotiations with Congress by declaring a fabricated national emergency, we won’t only call his bluff, we will do what we must to hold him accountable,” Becerra said. “No one is above the law.”

NPR’s Scott Horsley and Tamara Keith contributed to this story.