WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is not yet declaring a national emergency, but said Friday he will do it if an impasse with Democrats over his demand for a border wall isn’t soon bridged.
Trump also said he would sign legislation guaranteeing back pay for the federal workers who have been at home or working without pay during the partial government shutdown.
Some 800,000 federal employees, more than half still on the job, were due to miss their first paycheck Friday under a stoppage that neared a record for the longest government shutdown.
Looking to end the shutdown, Trump maintained he would “rather not” declare a national emergency to fund a wall, which he called an “easy way out” that he would prefer to avoid.
But he said he would if it came to that.
“If they can’t do it, I will declare a national emergency,” the president vowed in remarks from the White House, where he was conducting a roundtable on border security.
He has threatened for days to make such a move, claiming he has the “absolute right” to do it.
Trump predicted that if he did declare a national emergency, he would be sued and “probably lose” at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the same court that blocked his travel ban, but eventually win at the Supreme Court.
The president again stressed his view that there is a crisis at the southern border, saying the country is “under siege” and “being invaded by criminals and drugs.” Democrats have countered that the crisis is manufactured, and studies have not shown any link between illegal immigration and increased crime.
The shutdown over the fight has left a growing impact on the country, affecting critical services like food inspections and airport security and closing national parks.
Lawmakers tried to reassure federal employees on Friday that Congress was aware of the financial hardship they are enduring.
By a vote of 411-7, the House passed a bill requiring that all government workers receive retroactive pay after the partial shutdown ends. The Senate approved the bill unanimously Thursday.
Trump visited McAllen, TX, and the Rio Grande on Thursday, where he met with law enforcement officials and toured the border area as he continues a public push for the wall.
Meanwhile, the president was consulting with White House lawyers and allies about using emergency powers to take action on his own, and over the objections of Congress, to construct the wall.
Bypassing Congress' constitutional control of the nation’s purse strings would lead to certain legal challenges and bipartisan charges of executive overreach. Trump said his lawyers had told him the action would withstand legal scrutiny “100 percent.”
The wall was the central promise of Trump’s winning campaign in 2016.
Supporters have tried to convince him that an emergency declaration is the best option to end the shutdown and would give him political cover to reopen the government without appearing to be caving on his pledge. Trump, they argue, could tell backers that he was doing all he could to fight for the wall, even if his order were held up or blocked in court.
But not everyone in the administration is on board.
The president’s son-in-law and senior aide Jared Kushner, who traveled with Trump to Texas, is among those urging caution on the declaration, according to a person familiar with Kushner’s thinking but not authorized to publicly discuss the issue.
Trump is growing more frustrated as the shutdown drags on and is complaining that his aides are not offering him an exit strategy.
In the meantime, the administration has taken steps to lay the groundwork should Trump issue the declaration.
The White House has directed the Army Corps of Engineers to comb through its budget in search of money for the wall, including looking at $13.9 billion in unspent disaster relief funds earmarked for areas including hurricane-damaged Puerto Rico, Texas and more than a dozen other states. That's according to a congressional aide and administration official familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the request.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a lawmaker with a close relationship with the president, discounted that option, saying it was not "under very serious consideration."
"If there's a list of top 10 priorities on where to get money from, that doesn't make the top 10 list," Meadows said.
Defense Department officials had already been poring over data on more than $10 billion in military construction projects to determine how much of it would be available for emergency spending this year.
On Friday, officials in Puerto Rico said diverting disaster money to the wall was "unacceptable" and that the island was struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria, the Category 4 storm that hit more than a year ago and caused more than $100 billion in damage
Gov. Ricardo Rossello said the wall should not be funded "on the pain and suffering" of U.S. citizens who have faced tragedy after a natural disaster.
It was not clear what a potential compromise between the White House and Congress might entail. Efforts at negotiating a broader immigration deal involving immigrants brought to the country illegally as children collapsed with little progress.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., 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."
During his Thursday trip, Trump insisted he was "winning" the shutdown fight and criticized Democrats for asserting he was manufacturing a sense of crisis in order to declare an emergency.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., accused the president of engaging in political games to fire up his most loyal supporters and suggested that a heated meeting Wednesday with legislators at the White House had been "a setup" so that Trump could walk out of it.
The partial shutdown would set a record early Saturday, stretching beyond the 21-day closure that ended Jan 6, 1996, during President Bill Clinton's administration.