Donald Trump issued the first veto of his presidency on Friday, blocking Congress’ attempt to end the “national emergency” he had declared after lawmakers refused to fund the border wall he had originally promised Mexico would pay for.
Trump had previously said the emergency declaration is a good issue for his re-election campaign. He had also expressed little concern regarding the legality or constitutionality of declaring an emergency in order to spend taxpayer money in a way Congress specifically said he could not.
On Friday, the president brought into the Oval Office sheriffs who agree with his hard-line immigration policies and parents whose children were killed by undocumented immigrants.
Trump called the legislation that sought to end his emergency “reckless” and “dangerous,” while turning to a favorite phrase to describe Mexican and Central American refugees seeking asylum in the United States. “People hate the word ‘invasion,’ but that’s what it is,” he claimed.
In fact, border crossings are lower than they have been for years. And Trump’s focus on the losses suffered by “angel moms,” as he calls the grieving mothers, is belied by statistics showing that immigrants, even undocumented ones, commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans.
Democrats who control the House plan to bring his veto to the floor on March 26, after members return from a weeklong recess. Only 13 Republicans voted to end Trump’s emergency declaration when the disapproval resolution passed the House last month. While Democratic leadership expects the attempt to override the president’s veto will fall short of the needed two-thirds majority, they think there is value in forcing Republican members to vote a second time on whether they support Trump’s encroachment on Congress’ constitutional authority to spend money, a top Democratic aide said on condition of anonymity.
In the Senate, 12 Republicans joined all 47 Democrats on Thursday to end Trump’s emergency, but a failure to override in the House will forestall any similar effort in the upper chamber.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld (R), who is weighing a primary challenge against Trump in 2020, called the president’s overruling of Congress “frightening” and contrary to the sentiment of the majority of Americans.
“He offensively forces his opinion as being right, rather than doing what is right. This is the United States of America, not the kingdom of Trump,” Weld told HuffPost. “Day after day, he continues to make irrational decisions that are self-serving and, quite honestly, dangerous to our country and world standing.”
The unlikelihood of a successful veto override notwithstanding, the legislation disapproving of his declaration was an unprecedented rebuke for Trump ― the first time in the course of five dozen official national emergencies over 43 years that a Congress has so voted against a president.
Trump and his allies tried to make his declaration appear routine and in keeping with previous presidents’ actions. In a Feb. 26 veto threat issued through Trump’s Office of Management and Budget, the agency wrote: “This is the same authority that President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama used to undertake more than 18 different military construction projects between 2001 and 2013.”
However, none of those earlier emergency declarations ― or any of the others going back to the 1976 passage of the National Emergencies Act ― involved the president contravening a policy or an appropriation level specifically set by Congress. Trump is the first to declare an “emergency” over his inability to persuade lawmakers to pay for his own priority ― a priority that during his campaign he promised many hundreds of times Mexico would pay for.
Rep. Thomas Massie (Ky.), one of 13 House Republicans who voted with Democrats to overturn Trump’s declaration, pointed out on Twitter earlier this month that Trump himself on 12 separate occasions signed into law spending bills that did not contain money for his wall, rather than vetoing them as he could have.
Indeed, a review of Trump administration documents shows that the president did not become particularly interested in securing several billion dollars for his border wall until Fox News and talk radio hosts started criticizing him last March for failing to get that funding.
The OMB issued a statement on March 22, 2018, praising the “$1.6 billion for physical barriers and associated technology along the Southwest border” included in a $1.3 trillion spending bill. That night, Fox News’ evening personalities attacked Trump for preparing to sign that legislation even though it provided no money to build his long-promised, 30-foot-tall concrete wall. The next morning Trump threatened to veto the bill, but wound up signing it anyway.
At about that time, the Department of Homeland Security requested from Congress that same amount for the 2019 budget year: “$1.6 billion for 65 miles of new border wall construction in the Rio Grande Valley Sector.”
Only after Democrats gained 40 House seats in November’s midterm elections, enough to take control of the chamber this January, did Trump begin demanding that Congress give him $5.7 billion for his wall.
All but a handful of the five dozen emergency declarations by previous presidents over the past four decades have imposed trade restrictions or other economic sanctions against other nations for their aggressive behavior and human rights abuses.
A May 22, 1997, declaration by Bill Clinton prohibited new investment in Burma. An April 3, 2014, declaration by Obama imposed sanctions on leaders of South Sudan. The very first emergency — which is still in place to this day — was declared by Jimmy Carter to impose sanctions on Iran after the 1979 revolution.
Only a few of the past declarations dealt with policies other than targeted sanctions. One, declared by Ronald Reagan in 1983, reinstated a ban on the export of technologies that could be used for military purposes. Congress had allowed the ban to lapse, but did not oppose Reagan’s use of the National Emergencies Act to put it back in force.
Another non-sanctions measure came in 2005, when George W. Bush, without technically declaring an emergency, decreed the suspension of a requirement that federal contractors pay prevailing minimum wages as it related to workers involved in the Hurricane Katrina recovery. Democrats and some Republicans did object to that one and they set a vote in the House to disapprove it. Bush rescinded his decree the day before the scheduled vote.
Not one of those past presidents used an emergency declaration, however, to do anything close to what Trump is attempting to do: pay for a project not only without Congress’ approval, but after Congress has specifically rejected his funding request several times.