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Trump declares 'national emergency' to fund border wall with Mexico

Brendan Smialowski / AFP | President Trump speaks about a state of emergency in the US from the Rose Garden of the White House, February 15, 2019, in Washington, DC, USA.

President Donald Trump announced on Friday he will declare a national emergency to try to obtain funds for his promised US-Mexico border wall bypassing Congress, a move Democrats vowed to challenge as unconstitutional.

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"I'm going to be signing a national emergency," Trump said from the Rose Garden of the White House. "We have an invasion of drugs, invasion of gangs, invasion of people and it's unacceptable," he said.

The president said he would sign the authorising paperwork later in the day in the Oval Office, freeing Trump to seek to redirect billions of dollars of federal funds.

The emergency declaration enables the activation of any of hundreds of dormant powers, which can permit the White House to declare martial law, suspend civil liberties, expand the military, seize property and restrict trade, communications and financial transactions.

Article 1 of the US Constitution states Congress gets to decide how money is appropriated and Trump's plan to use emergency powers to circumvent congressional opposition to the wall has alarmed US lawmakers, including in his own Republican Party, who warn that the move would set a dangerous precedent.

New York state Attorney General Letitia James said Friday she would challenge Trump's use of his national emergency powers in order to build a wall on the southern border.

"Declaring a national emergency without legitimate cause could create a Constitutional crisis," James said in a statement. "We will not stand for this abuse of power and will fight back with every legal tool at our disposal."

A Constitutional crisis and a power grab

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Chuck Schumer, the Senate's top Democrat, also swiftly responded to Trump's declaration. Democrats have signalled that the move would open the door to future presidents declaring emergencies on various topics, from gun violence to climate change to the opioid crisis.

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"The President's unlawful declaration over a crisis that does not exist does great violence to our Constitution and makes America less safe, stealing from urgently needed defense funds for the security of our military and our nation," they said in a joint statement.

“The President's actions clearly violate the Congress’s exclusive power of the purse, which our Founders enshrined in the Constitution,” it added. “The Congress will defend our constitutional authorities in the Congress, in the courts, and in the public, using every remedy available.”

"This is plainly a power grab by a disappointed President, who has gone outside the bounds of the law to try to get what he failed to achieve in the constitutional legislative process", their statement said.

The president acknowledged that his order would face a lengthy legal challenge. "We'll win in the Supreme Court," Trump said.

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'A lawless act'

Trump made his declaration after agreeing to a spending measure to keep federal agencies operational through September 30, a relief for lawmakers who had fretted about the possibility of a second crippling government shutdown.

The bipartisan federal spending legislation, which would provide more than $300 billion to fund the Department of Homeland Security and a range of other agencies, was approved overwhelmingly in the Senate on Thursday by 83 votes to 16.

The bill, which contains no money for his wall, is a defeat for Trump in Congress, where his demand for $5.7 billion in barrier funding yielded no results, other than a record-long, 35-day December-January partial government shutdown that damaged the US economy and his opinion poll numbers.

The bill would provide $1.37 billion in new money to finance 88 additional kilometres of fencing along the border, significantly less than Trump wanted. It is the same level of funding Congress appropriated for border security measures last year, including barriers but not concrete walls.

A history of the battle over Trump's border wall

'An end-run'

The Trump administration has suggested that it could use national emergency powers to redirect money already committed by Congress for other purposes toward paying for Trump's wall.

A source familiar with the situation said that the White House had identified $2.7 billion in funds that could be used for this purpose.

The source said White House lawyers had vetted the figures and believed they would withstand a legal challenge. Under the Constitution, Congress holds the national purse strings and makes major decisions on spending taxpayer money.

Pelosi accused Trump of doing "an end-run" around Congress and around the Constitution's separation of powers that gives Congress, not the president, such authority as federal spending and declaring war.

"It's not an emergency, what's happening at the border. It's a humanitarian challenge to us," Pelosi said.

"If the president can declare an emergency on something that he has created as an emergency – an illusion that he wants to convey – just think of what a president with different values can present to the American people," Pelosi added, pointing to
gun violence in the United States as a national emergency.

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Earlier, Chuck Schumer called the spending legislation agreement a "reasonable compromise".

"It does not fund the president's wall, but it does support smart border security initiatives that both parties have always supported... Most importantly, it will keep our government open," Schumer said on the Senate floor.

The legislation would also fund the Justice Department, Commerce Department, State Department, Department of Agriculture, Internal Revenue Service and others, covering roughly 800,000 federal workers.

Failure to enact the bill would shutter many programmes, from national parks maintenance and air traffic controller training programmes to the collection and publication of important data for financial markets, for the second time this year.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AP)

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