A core group of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus is urging President Donald Trump against the explosive step of declaring a national emergency to build his wall.
Multiple Republicans in the conservative group have privately raised their concerns with the Trump administration, fearing it would lead to a years-long legal standoff that Democrats could win while setting a dangerous precedent for the presidency, according to more than a dozen lawmakers and GOP aides. They want Trump to hold out for a deal with Democrats, regardless of how long the partial government shutdown drags on.
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Trump’s possible pursuit of an emergency declaration on the border divided the caucus during an animated meeting Wednesday night, according to lawmakers who attended the meeting. Members wrestled with constitutional concerns. GOP Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan was reportedly particularly outspoken. Searching for an alternative, the group kicked around other, more legally sound ways for Trump to raise revenue for the wall.
“[Trump] has more options on the table than what I have read about,” said Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), who has sponsored a bill allowing private citizens to make contributions toward building and maintaining border walls. “We shared some of those ideas.”
But while conservatives are uneasy with the prospect of an emergency declaration, many acknowledge they would ultimately line up behind the president if he pulls the trigger — a scenario that is increasingly expected on Capitol Hill as the shutdown barrels into its fourth week.
“I do see the potential for national emergencies being used for every single thing that we face in the future where we can’t reach an agreement. That’s the slippery slope that I’m concerned about,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a top Trump ally, told POLITICO on Thursday. “The administration is well aware of the ability to use national emergency [powers] and the reluctance to do so from House members.”
“And yet, I think the president would find broad support if it’s determined that ultimately he has to do it,” Meadows added.
In a tweet Friday morning, Meadows wrote that if Democrats don’t compromise on the wall, Trump should exhaust all options before an emergency declaration, but then should feel free to do so. “POTUS should use asset forfeiture money or other discretionary fees to start construction,” he wrote. “If not, he should declare a national emergency.”
The president’s approach is putting House conservatives — who spent years railing against President Barack Obama for alleged executive overreach, particularly on immigration — in a serious bind. It’s also one of conservatives’ first battles in their new minority, where the once-powerful House Freedom Caucus now hold far less leverage in the House.
Some of the group’s ringleaders, however, still have Trump’s ear and are working behind the scenes to persuade Trump to avoid an emergency declaration. The group has real sway with the president, having helped convince him to shut down the government in the first place.
But they are competing against a small but growing contingency of Republicans who do support the power play, including some Freedom Caucus members.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally, urged the president Thursday to take executive action to secure wall funding after another failed attempt at dealmaking on immigration.
Speaking from the U.S.-Mexico border on Thursday, Trump signaled that he is leaning toward the step, which advisers say would enable the president to tap funds elsewhere in the budget, such as the Pentagon or Army Corps of Engineers, without congressional approval.
“If we don’t make a deal with Congress, most likely I will do that,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity Thursday. “We’re going to see what happens over the next few days.”
Freedom Caucus member Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) urged Trump to make the emergency declaration in an op-ed in the Daily Caller, while Rep. Mark Green, a freshman and newly minted Freedom Caucus member, is also girding for action on securing the border.
“I support whatever means it takes to get it done,” the Tennessee Republican told Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs. “We have a crisis at the southern border. It’s time to act.”
Other conservatives, however, are adamant that Trump’s strategy should be a last resort. Some are worried that it would be seen as backing down in the shutdown fight with Democrats, given the dubious fate of the border wall funds in the courts. Many GOP lawmakers are also anxious about setting a precedent for handing over too much power to the executive branch.
“To call it an outright emergency, I told them, I don’t agree with that, but it’s a crisis that needs to be dealt with. That was my opinion,” said Florida Republican Rep. Ted Yoho, who also pushed back against the proposal during the Freedom Caucus meeting this week. “Once you do that, it’s all or nothing.”
Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), another caucus member, said he does believe the president has the legal authority to declare an emergency for humanitarian reasons and the flow of deadly fentanyl over the border. But he warned against the approach.
“I believe the president does have the legal authority — if you read the statute — I also think it would be a poor use of that authority,” Schweikert said.
House Democratic leaders, just one week into the majority, are likely to respond quickly with legal action of their own if Trump goes ahead with his unilateral plan. That could tie up Trump’s wall funding maneuver for months or longer.
And if Trump agrees to reopen shuttered government agencies, Republicans fear they’ll lose their leverage if — or when — the move is blocked in court, which is why they prefer to see a deal go through Congress.
“I do think it’s an emergency, and if the president declares that, then we’ll go from there. But I think the best approach is legislatively,” Rep. Jim Jordan, another one of the group’s leaders, said in a Facebook live video with supporters Thursday.
“If he goes the ‘emergency’ route, I’m convinced it’s going to wind up in court. I think we all are. That just delays what we all know needs to get done,” the Ohio Republican said.
Meadows added that Trump could decide to keep the government shut down even if he declares a national emergency, suggesting that the president may wait to see the outcome in the courts first even if that took months.
“It doesn’t necessarily open the government,” Meadows said. “Declaring a national emergency and funding the government are two separate decisions.”