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Do Emergency Powers Allow Trump To Order A Border Wall?


Let's examine the power of a phrase. The phrase is national emergency. President Trump has talked about one. He says he might invoke emergency powers to order construction of a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. The fact is that the total number of people believed to cross each year is far down from historic highs. That is true despite an increase recently, but here's how the president described the border situation over the weekend.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And we have an absolute crisis and of criminals and gang members coming through. It is national security. It's a national emergency.

INSKEEP: So do emergency powers let him order a wall? Here to help answer that question is NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what are the president's emergency powers?

HORSLEY: The president does have some power under the National Emergencies Act to shift money from, say, one account, the Defense Department, to another. This is designed to give him flexibility to deal with an urgent situation. It's not designed to cut Congress out of the budgeting process.

INSKEEP: OK. So does the president alone get to decide when there is an emergency that would allow him to do this?

HORSLEY: He is allowed to do that, but he is expected to inform Congress. And if he were to try to use his emergency powers in this situation, it would almost certainly invite a legal challenge.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK. So there is some question there as to whether he has that kind of authority, but he can at least start the process. So is it clear that these powers would then allow him to shift that money from one budget pot to another, as you say, in order to order construction of a wall?

HORSLEY: Lots of questions would come up. For example, which military project would he leave unfunded in order to move that money over to wall construction, and how would a wall actually address the real situation we're confronting at the border? Which is a surge of asylum-seekers in family groups coming from Central America, most of whom turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents.

INSKEEP: Oh, then this is an interesting point that you're making here, Scott. There are multiple problems, multiple complications at the border. And this wall doesn't necessarily address the one that has made news recently, you're saying.

HORSLEY: That's right.

INSKEEP: So this is all a backdrop, in a sense, to a discussion over these negotiations to reopen the government. The president has said he will not sign routine spending bills that would open parts of the government that have been closed for a number of weeks now unless he gets some kind of funding for this border wall. There were talks over the weekend. Did the two sides make any progress?

HORSLEY: No, not really. And in fact, the president said on Sunday before those talks even began that he didn't really expect them to. This was more political theater than actual negotiation. One thing we did see, though, was the White House put into writing its budget ask. That's something the Democrats had been seeking. They want $5.7 billion for Trump's wall, which the president now says can be made from steel - not concrete.


HORSLEY: That would be enough to build 234 miles of barrier. That works out to about $24 million a mile. In addition, the administration is asking for hundreds of millions of additional dollars to build more detention beds, to hire more Border Patrol agents and immigration judges, to install new drug detection technology at the ports of entry and to deal with what it says is a humanitarian crisis at the border.

INSKEEP: You know, it's really interesting, Scott Horsley. It sounds like some of the items on that list are things that a lot of Democrats would sign onto, like more immigration judges just to give one example. It's the wall - the symbolism of the wall that is the sticking point here.

HORSLEY: The symbolism and the $5.7 billion.

INSKEEP: And when will more members of the public begin to feel the effects of this shutdown, which federal workers are already feeling?

HORSLEY: You know, it is mounting day by day. There's some talk now that tax refund checks could be delayed if this stretches on much longer. We are starting to hear anecdotal reports of sickouts by TSA agents. And that's causing longer lines at airports. This Friday is supposed to be payday for the federal workers. So if it's not solved by then, that would be the first time those 800,000 federal employees would actually miss a paycheck.

INSKEEP: Wow. People who are working, as well as furloughed, not being paid.


INSKEEP: Scott, thanks for the update.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.