As the United States government pursues its course in the longest shutdown in history, President Trump is reportedly beginning to consider diverting funds earmarked for disaster relief to be used to construct the border wall. The shutdown, begun over the fight between Trump and Congressional Democrats over a proposed spending bill that does not include the 5 billion dollars Trump has demanded for wall funding, has left hundreds of thousands of federal workers without pay, and delayed crucial government services including loans from the Department of Agriculture. “We need a barrier, we need a wall, whether it’s steel or concrete, call it whatever you want but we have to have it,” Tump said in a video statement published online on Thursday, from his trip to the southern border in Texas last week.
According to Trump, he is prepared to declare a legally dubious state of emergency at the border, which would allow him to direct federal funding towards wall construction without congressional approval. In order to do this, the White House has reportedly asked the Army Corps of Engineers to sift through its 13.9 billion dollars in existing emergency relief funds in order to find money that could be used to pay for construction on the border.
Asked whether he would declare a state of emergency as he left the White House for his visit to Texas, Trump said that if Congress did not offer him what he asked for he “probably will do it. I would say almost definitely.” Having returned from that trip, however, the president says that, for the moment, he will not.
Such a solution, however, touches on another of the controversies that have stirred the Trump administration over the past several weeks: his threats to cut off emergency relief aid to California for what he says is the state’s lack of preparedness for the wildfires that have torn across it for the last two years. “Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for forest fires that, with proper Forest Management, would never happen,” he wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. “Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money. It is a disgraceful situation in lives and money.”
Trump, whose administration has supported California’s agribusiness executives in their fight against the state for more access to scarce water resources, has blamed state environmental and water regulation policies in the past for the fires and repeatedly threatened to withhold federal support as a result.
Much of the nearly 14 billion dollars being examined in the Corps of Engineer disaster relief fund is designated to be used in over a dozen states to fight natural disaster emergencies. More notable on the list of disasters even than California’s record-breaking fires is the devastation caused in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria, which according to the Puerto Rican government’s count killed some 3,000 people. Diverting relief funds would almost certainly impact the 2.5 billion dollars earmarked to help relieve the destroyed areas of the island through 2020. Puerto Ricans have repeatedly accused the federal government of failing in its response to the catastrophe, and officials from the island called the news “unacceptable” in the face of nearly 100 billion dollars in damage done by the Category 4 storm.
“To use this now as a political football is not what U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico deserve,” said Jenniffer Gonzalez, the Puerto Rican representative to Congress. “I vehemently reject anyone playing with our pain and hope.”
According to U.S. officials briefed on the proposal, Trump was introduced to the strategy by senior officials in the Defense Department during his flight to Texas on Thursday. The Army Corps itself, they say, would be used to complete at least part of the construction, accomplishing an estimated 315 miles in approximately 18 months.
State officials from California spoke out against the president’s threats to cut relief funding and his tweet that specifically said he would order FEMA to cease to provide aid. “The president’s empty threat is based on groundless complaints, and candidly isn’t worth the time of day,” said California Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein. “It’s absolutely shocking for President Trump to suggest he would deny disaster assistance to communities destroyed by wildfire. Attacking victims is yet another low for this president.”
“Californians endured the deadliest wildfire in our state’s history last year. We should work together to mitigate these fires by combating climate change, not playing politics by threatening to withhold money from survivors of a deadly natural disaster,” said Democratic Senator Kamala Harris, herself a prospective 2020 presidential candidate.
Politically, it is an almost unprecedented stalemate, as neither Trump nor Democrats in Congress seem willing to cave to the other’s demands. The only political alternative would be for congressional Republicans to turn on Trump and overpower his veto, as the issue begins to roil their constituencies, many of which are made up of currently furloughed and unpaid federal workers. That, however, doesn’t yet seem to be a likely outcome.
“I fully expect him to declare a national emergency,” said Representative Mark Meadows, a Republican from North Carolina. “Most conservatives want it to be the last resort he would use,” Meadows went on. “But those same conservatives, I’m sure, if it’s deployed, would embrace him as having done all he could do to negotiate with Democrats.”
If a state of emergency is declared and money allocated directly by the executive, that should give Congress the political room to pass its spending bill without the threat of Trump’s veto and reopen the federal government. With every passing day, however, the pressure mounts on the president as workers in “inessential” federal departments begin to see zero-dollar pay stubs. Faced with a shutdown of unprecedented length, federal workers see no clear end in sight as the normal multi-part compromises and deferred political battles that typically solve such impasses seem, in this case, to have failed. The fear, however, is that such dramatic action by the president to wrest his money without Congressional approval would set a new precedent for executive authority going forward. Such an action, however, would almost certainly draw legal scrutiny and be brought before the federal courts.