The Senate’s overwhelming 59-41 vote to overturn President Trump’s emergency declaration is a major blow to Trump’s autocratic ambitions.
If Trump is able to get away with his fake emergency to build a pointless and racist wall in contravention of Congress’ explicit decision not to fund the project, then there’s every reason to suspect he will cry “emergency” in the future, for even more nefarious ends.
If you’re wondering what a frightening emergency scenario might look like, consider former Trump fixer Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee: “Given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, there will never be a peaceful transition of power.”
Trump is sure to veto the resolution of disapproval. Yet whether or not Congress overrides the veto, passage of the resolution of disapproval is a powerful political rejection of Trump’s illegal and improper use of emergency powers and more generally of his authoritarianism and disregard for the Constitution.
The bipartisan vote in both houses rejecting Trump’s emergency will make it far harder for Trump to declare another emergency. It is hoped it will arrest, and certainly will slow, the country’s slide to authoritarianism.
In a desperate bid to protect their party’s president, Republican senators sought a deal to permit this constitutional infringement in exchange for common sense reforms to the National Emergencies Act. The proposal, authored by U.S. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, would permit presidents to declare an emergency and access emergency powers for only 30 days, unless Congress affirmatively voted to permit the emergency to stay in force. That Trump rejected even that deal is yet more evidence of his belief that his powers should be unconstrained—and a disturbing sign that he wants to preserve maximum freedom to declare fake emergencies in the future.
The dozen Senate Republicans who voted against Trump took no pleasure in rebuking their party’s leader. To their credit, they chose principle over partisanship. Republicans voting for the resolution of disapproval support Trump’s proposal to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. But they recognized the peril in tolerating Trump’s emergency declaration maneuver.
Said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee: “Never before has a president asked for funding, the Congress has not provided it, and then the president then has used the National Emergencies Act of 1976 to spend the money anyway. The problem with this is that after a Revolutionary War against a king, our nation’s founders gave to Congress, a Congress elected by the people, the power to approve all spending so that the president would not have too much power. This check on the executive is a source of our freedom.”
Other Republicans failed the test of character, going through contortions to explain why they would tolerate this executive branch power grab when they had denounced far more modest exertions of executive power by President Barack Obama.
The Senate’s vote to approve the resolution of disapproval was not preordained. Republicans consistently have voted for the president, even when they disagreed with him. Only one Republican facing re-election in 2020—Sen. Susan Collins of Maine—voted for the resolution, and uniquely among Republicans she has a political self-interest in showing independence from Trump. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina had stated that there would be “no intellectual honesty” in supporting Trump after criticizing executive action by Obama, but he reversed himself when it came time to vote, reportedly out of fear for the electoral consequences.
Strong public opposition to the emergency declaration—as high as 70 percent in some polling—was strongly expressed, with tens of thousands demonstrating against the emergency declaration, tens of thousands of calls made to the Senate, more than half a million petition signatures delivered and Americans across the country delivering Constitutions to their senators to remind them of their duties. The Americans rose up and made their voices clear, and as a result, Congress responded to protect our constitutional values.
My organization, Public Citizen, has sued to block implementation of the emergency declaration, as have other organizations and states and cities. We believe the courts should and will find the declaration illegal and unconstitutional.
But the ultimate guarantee of our constitutional democracy and a just society is not the courts, but the people. We the People must continue to mobilize to stop Trump’s unconstitutional power grabs, whether Trump uses fake “emergency” claims or any other means.