Trump edges closer to declaring emergency

President hell-bent on finding money for wall, possibly by diverting disaster-relief funds

Supporters of Donald Trump react during a visit by the US president to McAllen, Texas on Thursday. (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump is edging closer to declaring a national emergency to fund his long-promised border wall, as the US government shutdown verges on being the longest in history.

Pressure is mounting to find an escape hatch from the three-week impasse that has closed parts of the government, leaving hundreds of thousands of workers without pay.

Some 800,000 federal workers, more than half of them still on the job, missed their first paycheque on Friday under the stoppage. The growing impact of the shutdown on national parks, food inspections and the economy overall have left some Republicans on Capitol Hill increasingly uncomfortable with Trump’s demands.

Asked about the plight of those going without pay, the president shifted the focus, saying he felt bad “for people that have family members that have been killed” by criminals who came over the border.

Trump visited McAllen, Texas, and the Rio Grande on Thursday to highlight what he calls a crisis of drugs and crime. He said that “if for any reason we don’t get this going” — an agreement with House Democrats who have refused to approve the $5.7 billion he demands for the wall — “I will declare a national emergency”.

There is no evidence of an immigrant crime wave, though. Multiple studies from social scientists and the libertarian think tank Cato Institute have found that people in the US illegally are less likely to commit crime than US citizens are and that legal immigrants are even less likely to do so.

Trump was consulting with White House lawyers and allies about using presidential emergency powers to take unilateral action to construct the wall over the objections of Congress. He claimed his lawyers told him the action would withstand legal scrutiny “100 percent”.

Such a move to bypass Congress’s constitutional control of the public purse strings would spark certain legal challenges and bipartisan cries of executive overreach.

A congressional official who asked not to be named said the White House had directed the Army Corps of Engineers to look for billions of dollars earmarked last year for disaster response for Puerto Rico and other areas that could be diverted to a border wall as part of the emergency declaration.

“We’re either going to have a win, make a compromise — because I think a compromise is a win for everybody — or I will declare a national emergency,” Trump said before departing the White House for his politically charged visit to the border. He wore his campaign-slogan “Make America Great Again” cap throughout.

It was not clear what a compromise might entail, and there were no indications that one was in the offing. Trump says he won’t reopen the government without money for the wall. Democrats say they favour measures to bolster border security but oppose the long, impregnable barrier that Trump envisions.

Republican Sen Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said at one point that he didn’t “see a path in Congress” to end the shutdown, then stated later that enough was enough: “It is time for President Trump to use emergency powers to fund the construction of a border wall/barrier.”

Visiting a border patrol station in McAllen, Trump viewed tables piled with weapons and narcotics. Like nearly all drugs trafficked across the border, they were intercepted by agents at official ports of entry, he was told, and not in the remote areas where he wants to extend tall barriers.

Still, he declared: “A wall works. … Nothing like a wall.”

He argued that the US can’t solve the problem without a “very substantial barrier” along the border, but offered exaggerations about the effectiveness of border walls and current apprehensions of those crossing illegally.

Sitting among border patrol officers, state and local officials and military representatives, Trump insisted he was “winning” the shutdown fight and criticised Democrats for asserting he was manufacturing a sense of crisis in order to declare an emergency. “What is manufactured is the use of the word ‘manufactured’,” he said.

As he arrived in Texas, several hundred protesters near the airport in McAllen chanted and waved signs opposing a wall. Across the street, a smaller group chanted back: “Build that wall!”

In Washington, federal workers denounced Trump at a rally with congressional Democrats, demanding he reopen the government so they can get back to work.

On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused the president of engaging in political games to fire up his most loyal supporters, suggesting that a heated meeting Wednesday with legislators at the White House had been “a setup” so that Trump could walk out of it.

In an ominous sign for those seeking a swift end to the showdown, Trump announced he was cancelling his trip to Davos, Switzerland, scheduled for later this month, citing Democrats’ “intransigence” on border security. He was to leave on Jan 21 to attend the World Economic Forum.

The partial shutdown will set a record early Saturday, stretching beyond the 21-day closure that ended on Jan 6, 1996, during Bill Clinton’s administration.

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