A meme popped up in my social media timeline the other day that, for me at least, crystallized the disconnect between fact and fantasy among many supporters of our president.
Cloaking themselves in outsized patriotism, they pretend to care deeply about the U.S. Constitution but ignore President Trump’s repeated attempts to attack and debase the principles in our nation’s founding document.
The meme depicts what looks like an American Revolutionary War irregular facing off against British Redcoats, a modern scoped assault weapon strapped to his back. The message above the image: “Nancy Pelosi just warned that a Democrat president could declare a national emergency on guns.”
Tthen below the image: “I don’t think that Nancy should test the limits of my patriotism.”
This is an utterly blinkered view of patriotism – fealty to an absolute interpretation of the Second Amendment, and an absolute disregard for the parts of the Constitution that Trump either is unaware of or doesn’t care about. Those would be the separation of powers and the First Amendment (most recently exhibited in Trump’s threats against “SNL” and the “fake news enemies of the people”).
Plus, the message in the meme misses the obvious fact that House Speaker Pelosi was making a rhetorical point, rather than leveling a threat. She was correct in warning that Trump’s precedent in invoking emergency powers in defiance of Congress, for what’s not an emergency, may clear the way for a future Democratic president to use emergency powers to enact gun-control measures counter to the demonstrated wishes of Congress. Others have made the same point with regard to a possible future emergency declaration to fight climate change.
While those actions, in my mind, would be more justified than a trumped-up emergency at the border, if you care about the constitutional separation of powers at the heart of American government, you should recoil at the prospect of a president bypassing the legislative branch on a project that Congress expressly decided against funding. Congress, under our system of government, controls the purse strings.
Pelosi’s statement of facts – outlining the terrible precedent that Trump is setting by misusing the National Emergencies Act – only comes across as a threat to the Second Amendment if you’re looking for a reason to get angry, or more to the point, want to change the subject.
Certainly, the subject in this case – a president grossly abusing his executive authority in order to accomplish a questionable political objective – isn’t something that people who still support the president want to acknowledge or talk about. They’d rather play a favorite oldie – “they want to take away your guns!” No matter that it has nothing to do with the issue at hand.
But ignoring Trump’s contempt for foundational constitutional principles is not patriotic, and has no connection with anything intrinsically American. It’s something Trump’s friend Russian President Putin would do, and has done, to consolidate power.
Faced with these arguments, the president’s apologists cite the fact that other presidents, including the last one, Barack Obama, have invoked emergency powers. But Trump’s invocation is different.
According to a New York Times article on Feb. 15, “A list of about 59 previous times when presidents since the Carter administration have invoked emergency powers, compiled for a recent study of presidential emergency powers for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, shows none that look like Mr. Trump’s declaration in crucial respects.
“The overwhelming majority of those instances were moves by presidents to impose sanctions on various foreign officials and groups – freezing their assets and making it illegal for Americans to do business with them – for wrongdoing like human rights violations, terrorism or transnational narcotics trafficking. They attracted no controversy because Congress has wanted the executive branch to operate that way” (emphasis ours).
In the same article, Chris Edelson, an American University government professor and author of a 2013 book, “Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror,” added along the same lines, “On the surface, this ‘Oh, other presidents do this, too’ line seems logical. But there is no example where a president asked for funding for something from Congress, Congress said, ‘No,’ and the president said, ‘I’ll use emergency powers to do it anyway.’”
Perhaps on even flimsier grounds is that idea that emergency authority is legally justified based on a national security emergency at our Southern border.”
As others have noted, the president sabotaged his own arguments for an emergency at the border by stating in his roll-out of the emergency order last Friday, “I could do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn’t need to do this [national emergency]. But I would rather do it much faster.”
And, of course, there’s the fact that Trump had two years with his own party in control of Congress during which building the wall was such an emergency that they did nothing about it.
Citizens and communities along the border have made it clear they don’t see any emergency, certainly nothing any worse than five, 10 or 20 years ago. And in El Paso’s case, the record clearly shows that this major border city was one of the United States’ safest communities even before a wall was built there in 2008. This is the opposite of what Trump stated a couple weeks ago. Indeed, an El Paso police officer told me during a visit in 2000 that his night-time patrol shift in that city was so boring that he and other officers in their cruisers would play “headlight tag” to pass the time.
Federal Drug Enforcement Administration crime-reporting statistics show that most drugs are coming across at the ports of entry (rather than open border areas) and that illegal immigration is down substantially since 2000. On the latter point, the U.S. Customs & Border Protection apprehended more than 1.6 millions people attempting to cross the Southwestern Border in 2000; this past year it was around 400,000.
So, with the president and his critics in apparent agreement that there’s no crisis or emergency at the border with Mexico, that appears to kick away the foundation from any argument for declaring an emergency to build a wall.
Yet, Trump so wants to satisfy his base and right-wing talk radio buffoons that he’s willing to fabricate a crisis at the border; eviscerate the separation of powers; set a dangerous precedent for future presidents; steal money for important defense, national disaster response and other projects for his wall; and finally, against his own and future presidents’ interests, goose Congress into passing laws that remove emergency powers from the executive branch.
And don’t get me started on all the flaming hypocrites in the GOP House and Senate caucuses in Washington who screamed bloody murder about President Obama’s emergency declarations – for nothing nearly as flagrant as Trump’s end around Congress for this border “emergency” – now lining up behind this rogue president.
With all of these meaty issues to worry about, what do Trump supporters want to holler about?
“Nancy Pelosi wants to take our guns!”
If it weren’t so depressing and dangerous, it would be funny.