President Trump’s emergency declaration to support a border wall will be issued against a violent backdrop of natural disasters that killed roughly 3,200 Americans since he took office two years ago.
Most of those victims died in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in September 2017, the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since 2004. Catastrophic storms also struck Florida and Texas, where Harvey inundated sprawling parts of Houston. Then in 2018, unprecedented wildfires raced without warning through Paradise, Calif., and other parts of the state, while hurricanes battered and flooded the Carolinas and Florida.
Climate scientists warn that human-caused temperature increases threaten to harm the U.S. economy, flood rivers and coastlines, and strain government programs. Trump responds to those concerns with dismissive tweets.
Yet Americans are more in need of protections against natural disasters — like funding for sea walls and other infrastructure — than a border wall, said Sherri Goodman, a senior strategist at the Center for Climate and Security and a former deputy undersecretary of Defense in the Clinton administration.
"In the last two years, we’ve seen more expensive natural disasters in the U.S. than we have ever experienced before from the hurricanes, extreme flooding, extreme precipitation and the wildfires out West," she said. "We’ve got more American communities at risk from natural disasters, our communities aren’t at risk from people crossing the border."
The Senate and the House passed a spending package yesterday that would provide $1.375 billion for 55 miles of border fencing. That’s far less than what Trump sought — $5.7 billion for 200 miles of fencing.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump would sign the bill and issue a national emergency to address the "national security and humanitarian crisis" at the border. "The president is once again delivering on his promise to build the wall, protect the border and secure our great country," she said.
The emergency declaration is certain to face legal challenges. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) threatened yesterday to lead the court fight herself.
"The Republicans should have some dismay about the door they are opening, the threshold they are crossing," Pelosi said, suggesting that Democrats could one day use the same power. Her comments came one year after the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
Where’s the money?
A looming question, and a political hornet’s nest for Trump, is where to find $4.3 billion to close the funding gap between yesterday’s congressional appropriation and his planned $5.7 billion wall investment.
The White House has provided no specifics about which federal agencies would pony up dollars for border wall construction, or how much.
Earlier this week, Trump referenced an 8 percent increase in Department of Homeland Security funding, amounting to $23 billion, that could be diverted to build the border wall. The White House has provided no details of how that would happen.
Pelosi, meanwhile, warned Republican lawmakers yesterday they would cross a dangerous threshold if they supported the redistribution of taxpayer dollars to a border wall when other risks — including health care, poverty and climate change — are more pressing.
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) doubled down on that point. "Climate change is a national emergency. So is child poverty," he said in a tweet aimed at the president. "You know what’s not, @realDonaldTrump? Your ridiculous campaign promise."
Some lawmakers remain concerned about reports that surfaced in January that the White House was considering diverting funds from a $13.9 billion Army Corps of Engineers account earmarked for long-term disaster recovery projects in 16 states, from California to Florida.
The allocations include more than $2.5 billion for storm-ravaged Puerto Rico after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and $4.9 billion for Texas, which is still recovering from catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Harvey.
Puerto Rico’s nonvoting Del. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon (R) warned this week in a letter to Trump that local concern about shifting money from the island’s hurricane recovery projects is causing "extreme anxiety" for people still rebuilding their communities.
"It feeds a negative narrative about your Administration that has been and will be used to deride all the effort previously carried out," she wrote. "You must come forth as the strongest advocate for preserving the funding of these works and put an end to these rumors."
A Corps of Engineers spokesman in Washington referred all calls about border wall funding to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. An official there said the agency would have no comment.
Similarly, DHS had no comment about concerns that the president could use billions of dollars in unspent Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster aid or disaster recovery block grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to help finance the border wall.
Neal Lane, a senior fellow in science and technology policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said in an email that none of those proposed diversions are justified.
"I’ve seen nothing … to suggest there is any kind of national emergency at the border that would justify such a diversion of federal funds to build a wall," he said. "The programs and actions of agencies like FEMA, especially in times of disasters like hurricane Harvey, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers and HUD, do address serious documented needs and real emergencies."
Affecting future emergencies
No Democrat has explicitly threatened to use a national emergency declaration for climate change, but Trump’s decision makes it possible.
If Trump’s emergency declaration survives legal challenges, which is far from certain, it could help a Democratic president take extraordinary steps to confront atmospheric pollution, according to experts. Among the potential actions are restrictions on fossil fuel use.
The National Emergencies Act, enacted in 1976, leaves it up to the president to define what constitutes an "emergency." It has been used by presidents more than 40 times in the past, 30 of which remain in effect.
Lawmakers in both parties warned Trump against declaring an emergency. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who cautioned that a future Democratic president could use the same powers to declare an emergency on climate change, said yesterday that Trump’s plan is a "bad idea." Other Republicans, including Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, also indicated displeasure at the idea. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had questioned the need for a national emergency declaration in the past but said yesterday he would support it.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) said that declaring a national emergency could undermine the Constitution.
"By circumventing Congress and Article I of the Constitution, President Trump is opening the door for any future president to act alone without Congressional approval," she said in a statement. "If elected president, how would Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders use this precedent for a national disaster declaration to force the Green New Deal on the American people?"
Democratic presidential candidates pointed to climate change and natural disasters as emergencies that are worthy of Trump’s order.
"Gun violence is an emergency," Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tweeted. "Climate change is an emergency. Our country’s opioid epidemic is an emergency. Donald Trump’s ridiculous wall is not an emergency."
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) pointed to Trump’s response to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria as a test that the administration failed to pass.
"Trump’s inability to follow through on a campaign promise is not a national emergency," Booker said. "Let’s not forget those still struggling to rebuild their lives after this administration failed to respond effectively to real emergencies in places like Puerto Rico."
Reporter Adam Aton contributed.