In a rambling and frequently senseless rant to reporters on Friday, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency as part of a ham-fisted effort to secure more funding for a border wall between the United States and Mexico.
The plan is legally and constitutionally questionable on its face. But in an answer to a question by NBC News’ Peter Alexander, Trump may have doomed any legal defense of the move, which is almost certain to face court challenges.
Alexander noted that Trump had been critical in the past of President Barack Obama’s supposed executive overreach, and he wondered how the White House squares those claims with its current actions.
Trump rambled a reply, claiming he got more money than he knew what to do with for border security but not enough for the wall. But then he noted that he could get more for the wall over time, if he wanted.
“I could do the wall over a longer period of time,” he said. “I didn’t need to do this, but I’d rather do it much faster.”
Legal experts immediately pointed out that this claim undercuts the basis for Trump’s emergency declaration.
“If Trump ‘didn’t need to do this,’ how could it possibly be a national emergency?” asked former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti.
Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor, argued that other presidents have used relatively flimsy excuses to declare national emergencies, so Trump has some precedent to rely on, even if his reasoning is erroneous.
“But Trump makes what he is doing seem, and in reality be, much worse because he suggests openly that there is no real emergency (‘I didn’t need to do this’), instead of (as past presidents did) hiding the ball or using more effective rhetoric in a less divisive context,” said Goldsmith.
George Conway, a prominent conservative lawyer who happens to be married to top Trump aide Kellyanne Conway, also pointed to the president’s assertion as being particularly damning.
“This quote should be the first sentence of the first paragraph of every complaint filed this afternoon,” he said on Twitter.
There’s never been a legal challenge to a national emergency before, so it’s far from clear how any such cases will be resolved. And the conservative Supreme Court has shown a desire to defer to the president on national security matters, even when his own statements undermine the case the administration’s lawyers make. But if the judicial branch is open at allto having a president’s emergency declaration challenged, the fact that the president himself said the move was unnecessary should be a particularly powerful argument against him.