Trump Shows His Authoritarian Hand

March 14, 2019
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Senator Mike Lee. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Say this for Senator Mike Lee: He is trying to make the best of a bad situation. When President Trump declared last month that he would ignore Congress’s refusal to fund his border wall and build it by declaring a national emergency, he ignited a predictable firestorm. Lee was one of the only ones who saw past Trump to the heart of the problem: The national emergency laws on the books don’t do much to prevent this sort of abuse. So this week, he and a few others hatched a plan to change that: Why not amend the law so that national emergency declarations automatically expire after a few months, restoring that presidential authority to its rightful function of addressing time-sensitive matters until Congress has time to act on them?

There was only one catch. The president, of course, had no intention of signing anything that would limit his ability to build his border wall. So Lee and his co-conspirators offered the White House a Faustian bargain: If he’d support the legislation, they’d write it so it applied only to future emergency declarations and drop their opposition to the present one.

The cynical take on Lee’s proposition practically writes itself: Some constitutional conservatives they are, agreeing to rubber-stamp one brazen act of imperial presidency simply to ensure the imperially minded executive can’t do it again! But it’s easy enough to see where Lee’s coming from: Congress is moving to block the border emergency, but they don’t have the votes to overcome Trump’s veto. So why not use what little leverage he and his fellow Senate Republicans do have—they could still block Nancy Pelosi’s resolution of disapproval from reaching the president’s desk at all, sparing him veto embarrassment—to try to ensure that this overreach, which is happening regardless, is at least the last of its kind? (The fact that Senate Republicans support the wall as a matter of policy surely didn’t hurt either.)

In the end, though, none of that mattered. Vice President Mike Pence’s assurances to Lee and his colleagues that Trump was open to the compromise went up in smoke when the president called in to a Senate lunch meeting Wednesday with a preemptive announcement: He planned to veto Lee’s bill.

In pure political terms, this is bewildering. Set aside the question of whether Trump hopes to vacuum up more lawmaking power via new national emergencies in the future: Spiking the compromise was a bizarre move simply because it was extremely unlikely Trump would even have to follow through on his end of the bargain. Pelosi had already announced Wednesday morning that the House would not pass Lee’s bill:

As Allahpundit pointed out yesterday, this supplied Trump with a golden opportunity:

Trump could have called her bluff and placed the onus on House Democrats to show how serious they are about reining in presidential power… If Pelosi kept her word about blocking Lee’s bill in the House, Trump would have secured a total victory. He’d have managed to kill off Pelosi’s resolution and avoided having to keep his promise to sign Lee’s bill into law — and he could have blamed Pelosi for the whole thing. “I care about limiting presidential emergency powers more than she does!” he could have said afterward. “I was ready to sign Mike’s bill. Nancy wouldn’t pass it!”

Yet he passed on this chance. We would do well to ponder why.

What Trump’s slapdown of Lee’s bill makes clear is this: The president isn’t just anxious to carry out his own policy priorities. Rather, he actively opposes the constitutional guardrails that are supposed to keep the power of creating federal law in the hands of the federal legislature. If Trump can be said to have any political principles, then his belief in raw executive power, unfettered by the petty squabbling of bookish lawmakers, is surely his deepest. Name a potential act of political will that President Trump would acknowledge the law puts beyond his unilateral power; you likely can’t, and he surely hasn’t.

In fact, one could read Trump’s unwillingness to accept Lee’s compromise as a perverse sort of principled stand: The president forsook a political win that would have united his restive caucus behind him once again out of mere contempt that lawmakers would attempt to limit his power at all. We end, then, where we started: with a Republican president unconcerned with sticking to the powers allotted to him by the Constitution and a Republican legislature overwhelmingly unconcerned with calling him to task.

Lee announced Wednesday that, compromise having fallen through, he will vote to oppose the national emergency. Would that more Republicans follow his example.

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger is a senior writer at The Bulwark.