On December 22, the government underwent what turned out to be a 35-day shutdown, the longest in American history. At the center of the problem was a dispute over funding for a border wall. Eager to keep his promises in the 2016 primaries, and doubtful that the incoming Democratic majority in the House of Representatives would support his goals, President Trump insisted that Congress include $5.7 billion in funding for a wall in the new spending bill. Democrats refused to grant any money for the project and Trump refused to sign any bill without such funds, leading to a stalemate. Although a stopgap bill passed on January 25 reopened the government for three weeks, it merely bought time for negotiations and did nothing to resolve the fundamental impasse. With a new shutdown looming, Congress crafted a new compromise bill that would keep the government open, grant $1.3 billion for fencing on the border, and limit the number of people the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) can detain. Although he was reluctant to support legislation that gave him only a fraction of what he wanted, Trump ultimately decided, last Thursday, that he would sign the bill. Simultaneously, he revealed his intent to declare a national emergency so he could try to use his executive powers in order to build the wall.
In some ways, this choice may seem to have been Trump’s best option. The shutdown was terrible for his image. PBS reported that 54 percent of Americans blamed him for it, compared with just 31 percent who held the congressional Democrats responsible. Additionally, Trump’s net “unfavorable” rating increased from 10.6 to 16.7 points during the 35 days the government was closed, according to FiveThirtyEight.com’s approval rating tracker. On the other hand, if he had simply accepted the bill without taking any further steps to build the wall, he would have risked looking weak to his base. In fact, Trump was already facing strong pressure from his right to refuse the deal. Conservative pundit and staunch Trump supporter Sean Hannity described the bill as a “garbage compromise” and claimed that “any Republican who supports it will have to explain.” Mark Krikorian of the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies called the deal a “not half-full but quarter or eighth-full glass.” Ann Coulter, who often attacks Trump as being too soft on immigration, was harshest of them all, tweeting that “Trump has just agreed to fully open borders” and that he “has just destroyed the U.S.A.” By signing a declaration of national emergency, Trump understandably hopes he can stave off more such criticism while (by signing the compromise bill) placating the independents who turned against him due to the shutdown.
Despite their political merits, however, Trump’s current actions are seriously flawed and reveal how little leverage he has remaining.
First, they lack popular backing. Support for the wall has risen to between 42 and 47 percent in recent months, but only 31 to 34 percent want him to declare a national emergency to construct it. Trump may have about one-third of the county committed to his aims, but at this point he lacks the broader base needed to win re-election.
The president’s second problem is that the judicial branch is likely to prevent him from successfully implementing this national emergency declaration. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already announced that she is considering taking it to the courts, and at least one moderate Republican, Senator Susan Collins, admits she thinks it is “of dubious constitutionality.”
And finally, the declaration of emergency sets dangerous precedents which the Democrats can take advantage of in future presidencies. As politicians on both the left and the right have pointed out, if Trump can declare a national emergency over illegal immigration, another president could do so over guns or climate change, and expand the government’s powers in ways most conservatives would despise. If he wanted to pass his immigration agenda, including its most famous plank, Trump had to find a way to win over moderates from both parties, help Republicans succeed in the midterm elections, and use his political capital to intelligently lobby Congress. Instead, he wasted his first term promoting conventional and unpopular conservative legislation on taxes and health care, lost control of the House last November, and now has to grope with less effective means to keep his promises.