‘National emergency’ sounds scary, doesn’t it?

Donald Trump has done very well for himself by sowing fear. Nothing, it turns out, motivates voters more.

And that’s why, I suspect, he is hesitating to declare a “national emergency” to build his border wall.

Our nation’s political and legal elites recognize that declaring a “national emergency” as defined by the National Emergencies Act of 1976 has never been a big deal before: presidents routinely declare them under very specific circumstances, to unlock very specific authorities. Trump has already declared three, all of them blocking the property or imposing sanctions on officials in Nicaragua, Russia and a variety of other countries. There are a total of 32 currently active, according to a great chart by CNN.

“What Congress is really doing here is saying ‘here are special authorities for special cases’,” University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck said in a conference call organized by the American Constitution Society on Friday.

But Trump, who is savvy about working a crowd, must realize that to ordinary people the term national emergency in a big headline conjures up much scarier images. I’m betting it polls real badly, too.

“When people hear ‘national emergency,’ they think martial law. They think crisis. They think all sorts of horrible things,” Vladeck said.

So where “build the wall” is dog-whistle for “stop brown people from ruining America” for Trump’s base, declaring a much-publicized “national emergency” could well be the spark that sends ordinary people into the streets, panicked about an unhinged president taking the law into his own hands.

For whatever reason, it’s obvious that Trump is conflicted about what to do. His comments about declaring a national emergency have been labored even by his standards.

So, for instance, he told a gaggle of reporters Thursday afternoon: “I have the absolute right to declare a national emergency. I haven’t done it yet. I may do it. If this doesn’t work out, probably I will do it. I would almost say definitely.”

Then he told Sean Hannity a few hours later: “Now if we don’t make a deal with Congress, most likely I will do that. I would actually say I would. I can’t imagine any reason why not because I’m allowed to do it.”

On Friday afternoon, he said at the White House: “The easy solution is for me to call a national emergency. I could do that very quickly. I have the absolute right to do it. But I’m not going to do it so fast because this is something Congress should do.”

Moments later: “What we’re not looking to do right now is national emergency.”

Then he said if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Minority Leader Chuck Schumer simply tell him they aren’t going to fund a wall – which they have, several times – that would be a trigger: “And if they can’t do it – if they yell that we can’t do it, ‘there’s no way we can vote for security, there’s no way we can vote for security,’ all Nancy and Chuck have to do is tell me and you know what? We’ll start thinking about another alternative.”

Then moments later, again: “Congress should do this. It they can’t do it, I will declare a national emergency”

Practically speaking, while there is nothing preventing Trump from unilaterally declaring any number of national emergencies, that does not mean he can simply do whatever he wants afterward.

As the Brennan Center’s Liza Goitein explained in an article in the Atlantic that I called attention to last week (because parts of it are quite scary) there are 136 special provisions that become available in different kinds of national emergencies — but they are all very specific and none allow for martial law.

There are two provisions in particular that Trump might use to justify ordering the military to build the wall — 10 USC 2808 and 33 USC 2293 – but even they have such specific requirements that any use of them would inevitably lead to forceful legal challenges.

And while neither the Constitution nor Congress have ever defined what a “national emergency” is – and the courts are notably deferential to the president’s commander-in-chief authorities – presumably some members of the judiciary would be willing to rule that it’s not a “national emergency” just because Congress refuses to go along with the president.

Some universal truths about Donald Trump that bear repeating (over and over again)

Meeting with congressional leadership January 4 in the Situation Room. (White House Photo)
While reading this morning’s crop of news and opinion, it struck me that there are several good examples here of stories that identify universal truths about Trump that are too often left out of the daily coverage.

Here is a (necessarily abbreviated) list of things about Trump that I think are essential context for any story about him. And not just fact-checks or think pieces! Because how can readers possibly be expected to understand what is going on otherwise?

Stop asking Democrats about impeachment. Start hounding Republicans instead.

Billionaire Tom Steyer announced on Wednesday that he will underwrite town halls, teach-ins and a summit on impeaching Trump.
Billionaire Tom Steyer announced on Wednesday that he will underwrite town halls, teach-ins and a summit on impeaching Trump. (Facebook photo)

The impeachment of Donald Trump is a distinct possibility, worth considerable media attention. In fact, organizing all the coverage of the Trump presidency around the question of impeachability is arguably the best way to avoid normalizing it.

But some of the lamest political journalism these days consists of reporters self-importantly grilling Democratic leaders about whether impeachment is on the table or not.

Of course it’s on the table.

That’s not the interesting part.

The interesting part is why it’s not happening yet.

And while a significant subset of Democrats believe that impeachment proceedings are already overdue, there are two things to keep in mind:

1. Members of the Democratic leadership have consistently made it clear that they will wait until the move to impeach is bipartisan (and/or special counsel Robert Mueller’s finding include such astonishing lawlessness that they feel they have no choice); and

2. Impeachment in the House doesn’t get rid of Trump. You need two thirds of the Senate to remove him – which means a significant number of Republican votes.

So if journalists want to cover the drama of impeachment – and they should – the people they should be hounding for answers (on the Sunday morning shows, on the CNN panels, in the Capitol hallways, etc.) are Republican members of Congress.

How do they reconcile Trump’s behavior with the country’s need for honest, predictable leadership? How is indefinitely shutting down the government in line with a president’s obligations under the Constitution? How is Trump’s company making money from foreign governments not an unconstitutional emolument? How much corruption is simply too much? Are they good with an unindicted co-conspirator in a criminal campaign-finance violation being president? How is [whatever Trump has just done] not an impeachable offense? What do they consider obstruction of justice? What do they think is impeachable?

The point is that Trump has committed any number of what could reasonably be considered impeachable offenses. So what needs to change is for at least some Republican to publicly acknowledge that.

The Democratic House will pursue oversight that may amount to a de facto impeachment inquiry, undoubtedly finding out more unsavory things about the Trump presidency. The Mueller investigation will at some point become less opaque.

So at what point will a significant number of non-suicidal Republicans break ranks from Trump and disown his profound dishonesty, corruption and contempt for the law?

That’s the exciting and important question. Start asking it now, and don’t stop.

Progressives have a new theory of everything

(C-SPAN 3)

The new unified theory of progressive politics is that desperately needed changes along an entire spectrum of otherwise unrelated issues are all dependent on the same thing: reducing the way money and intense partisanship interfere with the fundamental exercise of democracy.

That’s why groups committed to such varied causes as the environment, civil rights, stopping gun violence, LGBTQ issues, human rights, just foreign policy, free speech, health care, corporate accountability, abortion rights, collective bargaining, immigrant justice – you name it – are enthusiastically joining with good-government, voting rights and campaign finance organizations in support of H.R. 1, the House Democrats’ 571-page democracy restoration plan.

After all, how does a common, pro-public citizens agenda stand a chance when money warps every element of the democratic process from who gets heard to who doesn’t get heard to who runs to how they run to who gets to vote to who doesn’t get to vote, to whose vote counts?

A position held by a solid majority of citizens means nothing if their messages are drowned out by massive amounts of dark money; if only candidates with corporate backing can win elections; if voters can’t get to the polls or are turned away; or if the legislative process is perverted by the prospect of lucrative job offers and legalized bribery.

A variety of leaders from among the 125 national groups who have joined a coalition supporting H.R. 1 spoke on Capitol Hill on Wednesday in support of the bill, which would enact small-donor funding for elections while ending secret money, voter suppression, extreme partisan gerrymandering and flawed government ethics rules.

It was hardly a surprise to see Fred Wertheimer, the dean of the campaign-finance reform movement, in attendance.

But what was Debbie Sease, federal campaigns and legislative director of the Sierra Club, doing there?

“The Sierra Club is an environmental organization,” Sease said. “We care passionately about clean air, clean water, finding solutions to climate change —  so you might say, ‘Why would the Sierra Club think that the We the People Act, HR 1, is the single most important thing that we may do this Congress for the environment’?”

She explained: “We care passionately about clean air, clean water, finding solutions to climate change – and so does the vast majority of the American public. And the biggest things standing between the American public and those solutions have been the influence of corporate money and an electoral system that is broken.”

Until real democracy is achieved, she said, “we will not get those things.”

What was Christopher Shelton, president of the  Communications Workers of America, doing there?

“CWA members believe that Washington is rigged against the interest of ordinary working people,” he said. “They are crying out for anyone to bring our democracy back to its founding principles of ‘We the People,” not ‘We the Well-Connected With Huge Bank Accounts.’ That’s why we are so excited.”

What was Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, doing there? “The dark money that  corrupts politicians and tilts the scales in favor of special interests must be addressed,” he said. “And no money is darker than the funds funneled from the National Rifle Association headquarters to Capitol Hill.”

What was Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, doing there? “Voting rights is an LBGTQ issue,” she said. “Today we stand with our colleagues representing other movements to urge Congress to move forward on HR 1, a bold sent of reforms that will serves as a much needed lifeline to democracy.”

What was Bishop Garrison, interim executive director of the Truman National Security Project, doing there? “We know good, inclusive governance is the first step toward making our nation safer, while ensuring we remain an effective leader on the world stage,” he said. “It is important to our national security that we keep dark money out of politics.”

Public Citizen is leading the coalition of groups. Its president, Robert Weissman, said there is a growing movement across the country demanding democracy reforms.

“The Americans people do know that it is the failure of our democracy that stands in the way of the agenda that they want,” he said.

“It’s not necessarily a progressive agenda. It’s an American agenda – to provide health care for all, to raise the minimum wage, to deal with the price gouging of pharmaceutical companies, to take on the existential threat of climate change.

“That agenda has the support of 70, 80, 90 percent of Americans,” he continued. “The reason we don’t get progress is because our political system is broken through corruption and the undermining of democracy.”

Weissman concluded: “The only thing they support more than the things I just listed is fixing the democracy itself, which gets 90 percent support in public opinion polls.”