On Tuesday night Trump pulled back from the brink. For now.
After claiming last week that he could declare a national emergency and unilaterally authorize and fund the construction of a wall on the U.S./Mexico border, Trump used his prime-time address on Tuesday night to quietly back away from the idea. Instead of side-stepping Congress, Trump called on Democrats to pass a spending bill that would reopen the federal government and allocate more than $5 billion in funding for his wall.
“The only solution is for Democrats to pass a spending bill that reopens our government and defends our borders,” Trump said. “I have invited Congressional leaders to the White House to get this done. Hopefully we can rise above partisan politics.”
Of course, this being Donald Trump, it’s entirely possible he could renege on his restraint. The White House said on Wednesday that the declaration of a national emergency is “certainly still an option, something that’s on the table.”
But while a national emergency declaration remains theoretical (for the moment) the president has already succeeded in making some subtle but important authoritarian overtures, including feeding the idea that the U.S. political system is in chaos, and threatened by a shadowy but deadly enemy — the implication being that only way to fix it is with a strongman leader.
The president’s decision to operate within the “normal” political framework (insofar as forcing tens of thousands of federal employees to work without pay can be described as “normal”) is cause for some relief, especially given the near-unchecked power that declaring a national emergency would give Trump. Among other things, it could allow him to deploy troops inside the United States, shut off the internet, and freeze Americans’ bank accounts.
“If you had asked me about this two years ago I would have laughed because there’s no state of emergency,” Sheri Berman, a political science professor at Barnard College, Columbia University, told ThinkProgress. “It would’ve been a level of lunacy. A state of emergency is when something terrible and existential has happened, not ‘I can’t pass legislation.'”
Perhaps more insidious was the notion of declaring a national emergency based off information deemed classified or secret, which the White House again appeared to be floating over the weekend. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed on Fox News Sunday that “roughly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists come into our country illegally, and we know that our most vulnerable point of entry is the southern border.”
According to Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) data obtained by NBC News, the actual number of individuals who were detained at the U.S.-Mexico border in the first half of 2018 and classified by the federal government as known or suspected terrorists was just six. In fact, more terrorists have entered the U.S. via the Canadian border then via Mexico, and even that number is tiny and mostly relates to decades-old cases.
Despite this, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen continued to insist on Twitter that “the threat is real,” while declining to give specifics.
The threat is real. The number of terror-watchlisted encountered at our Southern Border has increased over the last two years. The exact number is sensitive and details about these cases are extremely sensitive.
— Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen (@SecNielsen) January 8, 2019
The use of the term “Southern Border” by Nielsen — as well as by Trump and his acolytes — further helps maintain the sense of crisis, according to Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York University and expert on authoritarianism.
“The term ‘Southern Border’ was not a term used before until the Trump Administration made it a thing,” she told ThinkProgress. “Now everyone uses it. This is an internalization of a security crisis and an example of how we unwittingly get roped into this. You want to create the idea of the threat.”
Both Professors Ben-Ghiat and Berman agreed that authoritarians regularly inflate or entirely manufacture supposed national security crises — often based off of classified info only they have access to — in order to further cement their grip on power.
Professor Berman noted how, during a failed 2016 coup against him, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that the coup was organized by the “derin delvet” or Turkish deep state, despite offering no concrete proof. As a result, more than 100,000 Turks were dismissed from their jobs and more than 50,000 were imprisoned. Professor Ben-Ghiat noted how the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings were used to justify Vladimir Putin’s ascent to power, despite significant lapses in the intelligence which claimed that bombing was carried out by Chechen terrorists.
But according to Professor Ben-Ghiat, even Trump’s speech itself laid an authoritarian groundwork. “Uncertainty is part of the agenda of potential authoritarians, who want make things as nervous as possible and for people to feel the undertone of threat before he opens his mouth,” she said. It’s a tone that says “you got away this time’.”
Furthermore, if Trump were to eventually declare a national emergency, Professor Ben-Ghiat is sure that a large number of his supporters would buy it, especially bearing in mind the fact that Trump has repeatedly bought into, or been party to, conspiracy theories — from QAnon to Pizzagate to accusations of Clinton’s corruption — which claim that he alone is standing up the Deep State.
“I think the idea of floating out specter of secret information and allusion… he’s set this up very well [his supporters] are very well-trained,” she said. “I’m completely think some of them would view a state of emergency as perfectly necessary.”