President Donald Trump on Friday declared a national emergency at the southern U.S. border in an effort to unilaterally seize funding to begin building his long-promised wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
Trump, who was accompanied by parents of children killed by unauthorized immigrants, said he was declaring the national emergency for “virtual invasion purposes.”
But he also acknowledged another reason: He didn’t want to wait on Congress to approve the funds.
“I could do the wall over a longer period of time ― I didn’t need to do this,” Trump said in a televised speech, even as he contended the situation on the southern border amounted to a national emergency. “But I’d rather do it much faster.”
Trump is also expected to approve Congress’ spending bill, which grants him $1.375 billion for the wall, as opposed to the $5.7 billion he initially demanded. The national emergency declaration gives Trump a chance to reroute other government money to fund the project ― and sets up a legal battle that could tie up the president’s signature project for months or years.
To justify the wall, Trump repeatedly insisted criminals, gang members and drug traffickers were pouring over the border and that only a wall could stop them.
“We have far more people trying to get into our country today than probably ever before,” Trump said.
In fact, arrests for illegal border crossings are at their lowest levels since the 1970s. There were roughly 520,000 arrests for unauthorized border crossings last year, which is about one-third of the 1.6 million arrests that happened in 2000. Since 2014, a high proportion of those crossing have been Central American children and families seeking to make humanitarian claims such as asylum.
The total wall funding will now come to about $8 billion, partially approved by Congress but mostly by Trump alone. That will buy the administration some 234 miles of border wall, a senior administration official told reporters Friday.
The national emergency declaration will allow the Trump administration to use about $3.6 billion from Defense Department construction projects to build the wall, along with another $2.5 billion the department had allocated for counter-drug activities, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told reporters.
The Trump administration also plans to take executive action to move about $200 million from the Department of Homeland Security and another $600 million from the Treasury Department’s asset forfeiture account.
None of the money will come from hurricane relief, Mulvaney said.
The DHS funding bill included restrictions on where new border wall could be constructed. Those restrictions won’t apply to the portions built with national emergency money, a senior administration official said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced Thursday on the Senate floor that Trump planned to sign the bill and declare a national emergency at the same time, adding that he supported the decision. Congress passed a government funding bill Thursday evening.
McConnell warned Trump in private that declaring an emergency would spark a backlash among Republicans, according to The Washington Post.
A national emergency declaration grants a president the ability to circumvent certain government rules so that an administration can respond to a crisis. In this case, Trump is sidestepping Congress so that he can gain access to certain federal funds without congressional approval.
Administration officials cited dozens of previous national emergency declarations, insisting that Trump would not break with historical precedent by “unlocking” new pots of money for the border wall he seeks.
“It’s not as if he just didn’t get what he wanted so he’s waving a magic wand and taking a bunch of money,” Mulvaney said.
The move is almost certain to be challenged in court.
“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,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who has sued the Trump administration multiple times, said in a statement. “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.”
Prior to the declaration, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the proclamation a “gross abuse of the power of the presidency” and vowed that “Congress will defend our constitutional authorities.”
For two months, Democrats in Congress have been enmeshed in stalled negotiations with Trump as he refused to accept anything less than $5.7 billion in the federal budget for his border wall. The stalemate caused a record-breaking partial government shutdown that forced an estimated 800,000 government employees to go without pay for 35 days.
Trump reopened the government for three weeks on Jan. 25, allowing government workers to get back to work as border security negotiations continued.
In January, Trump asserted that he had “the absolute right to declare a national emergency,” according to CNN. He called it “the easy route” while insisting that he’d rather Congress approve his border wall funding.