A national emergency: Fealty to Trump or the Constitution?

President Donald Trump turns back to the audience after speaking during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, to declare a national emergency in order to build a wall along the southern border. (Susan Walsh/AP Photo)

President Donald Trump turns back to the audience after speaking during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, to declare a national emergency in order to build a wall along the southern border. (Susan Walsh/AP Photo)

Now that the inevitable moment of truth has finally arrived — with Donald Trump in banana republic mode, concocting a phony national emergency, flouting the will of Congress and trampling its constitutional spending power — we will soon learn whether he has fatally infuriated the Fellowship of the Furrowed Brow.

I am referring, of course, to all those congressional Republicans who have long reacted to Trump’s demagogic lies and abuses by furrowing their brows and mouthing worthless words. We’re seeing it again now. Trump’s four-alarm fakery — declaring an emergency that he admits is not an emergency (“I didn’t need to do this”), dictatorially breaching Congress’ Article I powers of the purse — has prodded some Senate Republicans to summon their usual adjectives. Over the weekend, they deemed his action “unwise.” Confronted with Trump’s imperial move to fund a fantasy wall even after Congress explicitly refused to do so, they pronounced themselves “concerned.”

But what are they prepared to actually do? They should listen to Matt Latimer, a former George W. Bush aide and lifelong conservative, who writes:

“By now, we’ve all become numb, alarmingly so, to the nutty ideas [Trump] has floated or, in some cases, enacted to undermine the basic norms of our democratic institutions…But as bizarre and dangers as these have been, his plan to declare a national emergency is by far the absolute worst. Shame on any ‘conservatives’ who roll their eyes, shrug their shoulders, and let him take this path…

“The core of conservatism has always been a distrust of a powerful national government and the necessity of imposing restraints on it…The notion that [Trump] can simply circumvent the national legislature out of pique, declare something that has been going on for years as an ’emergency,’ and then implement policies our elected representatives didn’t vote for, allocate money for, or in any other way authorize, is totally antithetical to representative democracy and the checks and balances system…Is there anyone with the courage to stop him?”

By law, an emergency declaration can be challenged by a congressional resolution of disapproval. Nancy Pelosi’s House will pass such a measure and send it to the Senate, where, again by law, it must be brought to the floor and cannot be filibustered into oblivion. Which means that the Fellowship of the Furrowed Brow will soon be forced to choose fealty to His Flagrancy — or to the Founding Fathers. In preparation for that moment, they should read The Bulwark, a new website founded by sane conservatives who abhor what’s happening in America. From its weekend editorial:

“Republican legislators face a time for choosing: Support Trump or the rule of law…It will test the GOP’s commitment both to constitutional norms and to limited government…It is right and proper to put our elected officials on record at this moment of truth. They will have to choose whether they are willing to cross this red line for a fictional emergency and an imaginary wall…Who will speak for the non-autocratic wing of the Republican party?”

Who indeed. It certainly won’t be Senate leader Mitch McConnell, the Trump toady who’s selling out the institution he professes to revere. There have been bleats of protest from Republicans who face tough re-election races in 2020, particularly in blue states where Trump’s wall fantasy is loathed (hence Susan Collins of Maine, who said Friday that Trump’s move is a “mistake”), and even some restiveness among 2020 Republicans whose seats are presumably safe (hence John Cornyn of Texas, who warned earlier this month that an emergency declaration would “divide Republicans…It strikes me as not a great strategy”).

But will congressional Republicans join forces with Democrats and stand up when the chips are down? Empty words aside, will they actually vote for a resolution of disapproval — perhaps not in the landslide numbers (two-thirds in each chamber) required to override a Trump veto, but at least in sufficient numbers to demonstrate, to the majority of the American electorate that opposes the wall and opposes a national emergency, that they have the guts to fight for democratic norms?

Don’t hold your breath. The typical furrowed-brow Senate Republican won’t say whether he or she would vote to disapprove. Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey said over the weekend: “I made no secret of the fact that I hoped the president would choose to avoid unilateral action and work with Congress on a legislative solution to secure the border.” Beyond that, “My staff and I are reviewing the president’s declaration and its implications very closely.”

And yesterday, on “Meet the Press,” Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson did a similar dance. He said: “Many of us are very concerned about this [emergency declaration]…We should have three co-equal branches…Congress is really diminished. And we should start taking back that congressional authority.” But, to advance that goal, will he vote for a resolution of disapproval? “I’m going to take a look at it and I’ll decide when I actually have to vote on it.”

I know that Republicans live in terror of the vocal Trumpist minority, but, on the merits and in the national interest, such a vote should be a no-brainer. Trump didn’t campaign on a promise to steal Congress’ constitutionally-mandated spending power; back in 2014, he even tweeted that “Repubs must not allow Pres Obama to subvert the Constitution of the US for his own benefit & because he is unable to negotiate w/ Congress.” And Trump certainly didn’t campaign on a promise to build a wall by stealing money that had been legally appropriated for U.S. military housing. It’s high time that the Fellowship of the Furrowed Brow stands up for the fragile norms we revere and the democracy we love.

David French, a conservative attorney writing in the conservative National Review, has a message for those who are still loath to confront our true national emergency:

“Congratulations, partisans. You claim you’re saving our country. In reality, you’re wrecking our Constitution.”

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