His brand is crisis, so it can be hard to keep abreast of the various calamities President Trump stumbles into or deliberately courts. Now that tensions with Iran seem to have momentarily cooled, another recent episode of Trumpian brinksmanship, closer to home, deserves some attention before we lurch forward into new dangers.
As you’ve surely heard, but may have already forgotten amid the fog of near-war, three weeks ago, President Trump threatened to declare yet another national emergency at the southern border. If Mexico didn’t sufficiently crack down on cross-border migration, Trump warned, he’d use “the authorities granted to me by the International Emergency Economic Powers Act” to hammer our third largest trading partner—and U.S. consumers—with a series of escalating tariffs on Mexican goods, rising to 25 percent across the board.
Fortunately, on June 7, three days before the deadline he’d set, President Trump called off the trade war. But, Trump warned, he “can always go back” to raising tariffs if he’s not happy.
The notion that the president can, with the stroke of a pen, upend peaceful trade relations and implement a massive tax hike ought to sound the alarm about Trump’s expansive view of presidential emergency powers. Are they as vast as the president claims, and, if so, what can Congress do to rein them in?
As I argued in Reason magazine recently, our latest Imperial President has aggressively exploited the powers he inherited, but hasn’t been much of an innovator in terms of devising genuinely new schemes for the expansion of executive power. Trump’s use of emergency authorities is the glaring exception to that pattern, the key area in which the “CEO president” has been menacingly entrepreneurial.
We saw this first in February, when President Trump declared a national emergency in order to “build the wall” on the U.S.-Mexico border. The statute Trump invoked, 10 USC § 2808, allows the president to divert funds to “military construction projects” supporting the use of U.S. armed forces in a military emergency. It had been used only twice before, by George H.W. Bush in the run-up to the Gulf War, and by his son in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks—the sort of circumstances it was clearly designed to address. Though past presidents had used emergency powers liberally, before Trump, it apparently hadn’t occurred to anyone that you could use them to snatch funding for a pet project that Congress had repeatedly refused to support.