SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump declared a national emergency at the southern border Friday in an attempt to unlock billions of dollars to build a border wall that Congress has thus far denied him.
“We’re going to confront the national security crisis on our southern border and we’re going to do it one way or the other,” he said in a televised announcement in the Rose Garden. “It’s an invasion,” he added. “We have an invasion of drugs and criminals coming into our country.”
The declaration has been called “phony” by Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who vowed to introduce a bill with fellow Democrat Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, to stop Trump's emergency declaration.
Declaring a national emergency allows a president to expand his executive powers by creating exceptions to the rules that normally restrict him, according to The New York Times. The intention is to allow the government to respond quickly to a crisis situation.
There are hundreds of "provisions of federal law delegating to the executive extraordinary authority in time of national emergency,” according to the Congressional Research Service.
Trump is not the first president to declare a national emergency — since the National Emergencies Act was enacted in 1976, presidents have declared national emergencies 58 times, NBC News reported.
There are at least 30 active national emergencies in the United States right now, according to Fox News, the longest of which was prompted by the Iran hostage crisis in 1974, and has been ongoing for four decades straight.
But experts say Trump's declaration is different.
"(N)one of the emergencies have involved the president of the United States spending money that had not been specifically appropriated by Congress," Fox News reported.
Past emergency declarations have followed terrorist attacks, natural disasters or have involved economic sanctions on foreign nations, according to NPR.
Some experts say the declaration goes beyond the border wall controversy: that invoking a national emergency outside of war or disasters (like the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks) sets a worrying precedent.
“It’s concerning when any powers intended for emergency use are used in nonemergency situations in order to avoid the check of congressional legislation and power of the purse on executive action,” Andrew Boyle, with the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told Foreign Policy.
White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney pushed back on the concern that the move creates a dangerous precedent.
“It actually creates zero precedent,” said Mulvaney Friday. “This is authority given to the president in law already, it’s not as if he just didn’t get what he wanted so he’s waving a magic wand and taking a bunch of money.”
Nevertheless, emergency powers cover almost every imaginable subject area, including the military, land use, public health, trade, federal pay schedules, agriculture, transportation, communications, and criminal law, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice.
While a president's emergency powers can be used for good — they also open up the possibility for a president to significantly broaden their authority and circumvent important checks on presidential power, according to The Atlantic.
"Unknown to most Americans, a parallel legal regime allows the president to sidestep many of the constraints that normally apply," The Atlantic stated. "The moment the president declares a 'national emergency' — a decision that is entirely within his discretion — more than 100 special provisions become available to him. While many of these tee up reasonable responses to genuine emergencies, some appear dangerously suited to a leader bent on amassing or retaining."
Here are four things a president could theoretically use national emergency powers to accomplish that might surprise you:
1. Suspend rules prohibiting the testing of biological and chemical weapons on unwitting people
During a declared war or national emergency, the president can unilaterally suspend the law that bars government testing of biological and chemical agents on unwitting human subjects, The Atlantic reported.
2. Allow the government to freeze people's assets — including Americans
The International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) allows the government to freeze any asset or block any financial transaction in which a foreign national has an interest, even if the asset belongs to an American or the transaction is between Americans
3. Permit the president to take over radio stations
Section 706(c) of the Communications Act of 1934 allows the president to shut down or take over radio stations.
"Upon proclamation by the President that there exists war or a threat of war, or a state of public peril or disaster or other national emergency ... the President, if he deems it necessary in the interest of national security or defense ... may cause the closing of anystationfor radio communication," the Act reads.
4. Give the president an internet "kill switch"
In 1942, Section 706 of the Communications Act of 1934 (the same one that allows the president to take over radio stations) was amended to allow the president to shut down or assume control over “any facility or station for wire communication” upon his proclamation “that there exists a state or threat of war involving the United States.”27 comments on this story
While at that time, “wire communication” meant telephone calls or telegrams, which would have created inconvenience but not havoc, “we live in a very different universe today,” according to The Atlantic.
Some government officials have already discussed interpreting the 1942 law to cover the internet. Under this interpretation, Section 706 could function as an internet “kill switch.” If the president merely proclaimed the “threat” of war, this interpretation could give him the power to shut down the internet, or assume control over internet traffic.