It is bad for the country and worse for the Constitution that President Trump has decided to bypass Congress and declare a national emergency in order to start building his long-sought, long-promised wall on the southern border. But there is the small consolation of a thin silver lining: One more pillar of Republican conservatism has been revealed as a hollow pose.
The pillar, in this case, is the GOP's claim to be more Constitutional than thou — the party's longstanding insistence that it is most faithful to the words and vision of the Founders, and thus more dedicated to "American" notions of freedom and liberty.
Clearly, that assertion is false.
The Constitution is pretty clear on this point: Congress has the power of the purse. The president does not. By declaring an emergency, Trump is circumventing the rule of law his fellow Republicans have long claimed to hold so dear.
And he is doing so with the full support of his party's leaders.
"I indicated to him I'm going to support the national emergency declaration," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday, announcing the president's decision on the Senate floor. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — who once warned starkly about the dangers of Trumpism — followed up with some cheerleading of his own, as did Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.).
Sure, there are some Republicans, like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who are protesting the president's planned move. Whether that opposition amounts to anything, though, remains to be seen.
In the meantime, Thursday's announcement provides an opportunity to freshly consider McConnell's destructive brand of politics. The senator has long been one of the GOP's leading practitioners of using the Constitution — and the ideals of American democracy itself — as a cudgel against the best-laid plans of Democrats.
In 2012, when President Obama announced the DACA program to give a respite from deportation to undocumented migrants who had been brought to the United States as children, McConnell signed onto a letter with other senators complaining Obama was doing an end-run around the Constitution.
"As president, you swore to uphold and defend the Constitution and enforce the laws," those senators wrote to Obama. "Your recently announced directive runs contrary to that responsibility. Not only is your directive an affront to our system of representative government and the legislative process, but it is an inappropriate use of executive power."
In 2014, when Obama expanded the program to protect undocumented migrants who were parents to American citizens and lawful permanent residents, McConnell complained once again.
"Some people seem to have forgotten this already, but we just had an election," McConnell said. "Before that election the president told us about his plan to act unilaterally on immigration. He reminded us that his policies were on the ballot. And then the people spoke. The president doesn't have to like the result, but he has a duty to respect it."
Close your eyes, and this sounds just like a description of the recent 2018 midterm elections. It's uncanny. What changed McConnell's outlook? Only the person sitting in the Oval Office. That occupant, Trump, belies every claim Republicans have made to Constitutional fidelity. His authoritarian temperament has always been apparent, and he has barely pretended to be familiar with the Constitution, let alone a faithful adherent to it — although, as is often the case, his Twitter history is relevant to the matter.
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.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 20, 2014
Perhaps Trump's bending of the Constitution could be excused if the United States faced a real emergency — many Americans certainly seemed content to look the other way as the Bush administration pushed the limits in the early years after 9/11, and President Abraham Lincoln's reputation survived the extra-Constitutional steps he took while fighting the Civil War. But immigration policy is not a national emergency by any real standard. Trump is asserting his authority not because the moment requires it, but because he wants to — and that is what makes this moment so dangerous.
Republicans, of course, have been warned that this decision could be turned against them:
RT if you think the first "national emergency" under the next Democratic administration will be climate change.
Like if you think it will be gun control.
— Katherine Mangu-Ward (@kmanguward) February 14, 2019
There is little reason, however, to believe Trump cares much about the future. He has reportedly told advisers "I won't be here" when the debt triggered by the GOP's massive tax cuts becomes a crisis for the country. If that's the case, there's little reason to hope he'd restrain his abuse of the Constitution in order to avoid creating a terrible precedent.
McConnell, on the other hand, should know better. Instead, despite occasional shows of resistance, he has become an enabler of the Trump era's most egregious offenses. The Constitution may well — we hope — survive the coming emergency declaration. The GOP's reputation for Constitutional faithfulness, though, won't be so lucky.