Sunday, February 10, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He claimed he could spend taxpayer money however he liked without Congress's approval or invoking a national emergency.

Trump has painted himself into a corner over funding for the "wall" that Mexico was supposed to be paying for: Democrats in Congress can easily defeat any funding bill that includes a legal appropriation of money for it, but the far-right elements in his base he desperately needs for political survival have started to hold him to his promises. Trump's record-shattering multiple-paycheck shutdown backfired politically. And Republicans in Congress show no appetite for one possible solution—declaring that historically low numbers of illegal border crossings counts as an "emergency."

Trump's Budget Director and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney was dispatched to Fox News this morning to argue that there is a way out of the dilemma that involved neither declaring an emergency nor getting Congress to give in to Trump's demands: simply spending money appropriated for other purposes on a wall that Congress has explicitly refused to pay for.

"There is money that he can get at and is legally allowed to spend... all of this is going to be legal," Mulvaney said.

There are two problems with this statement: first, it's not really true. Both the Constitution and existing federal law put severe restrictions on a president's ability to reappropriate funds, especially where Congress has made an explicit choice. If that were an option, Trump would not have needed to shut down the government for 35 days in an attempt to force Congress to capitulate.

(This is why, for example, the Reagan administration found it necessary to break the law outright by selling weapons to Iran in order to fund the Nicaraguan rebels that Congress had refused to support with taxpayer money. Moving money around in the open wasn't an option.)

The second issue is that Trump has already identified where he'd like to take the money from: flood control projects meant to protect New Orleans from another Katrina, critical military readiness programs, and disaster relief agencies serving Texas and Puerto Rico. Even if Trump were to try to take money from these programs to start building on any wall, he'd face lawsuits at every turn and opposition from both parties in Congress.

So what?

  • Presidents don't get to ignore the Constitution just because it's inconvenient for their political situation.