Donald Trump claimed on Sunday he may declare a national emergency over immigration, to allow him to build a wall on America’s southern border.
As the government shutdown triggered by the president entered its 16th day, Trump threatened to take extraordinary action to bypass Congress, where Democrats refuse to pass a spending bill that would give him $5.6bn to build his wall. New House speaker Nancy Pelosi has called the wall “an immorality” and refused to fund Trump’s signature election campaign pledge.
By declaring a state of national emergency, the White House thinks it will be able to unlock money from other sources without congressional approval, although it has given no specific details of the move.
Adam Schiff, a Democratic leader on Capitol Hill, declared the idea “a non-starter”.
Speaking on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday, the California representative said: “If Harry Truman couldn’t nationalise the steel industry during wartime, this president doesn’t have the power to declare an emergency and build a multi-billion dollar wall on the border. So that’s a non-starter.”
The 1976 National Emergencies Act grants a president powers to take unilateral acts in times of crisis. But it also outlines congressional checks and with Democrats controlling the House, an attempt to make such a move would be fiercely contested, potentially pitching the US into constitutional crisis.
Leaving the White House for Camp David on Sunday morning, Trump claimed that many of the 800,000 federal staff who are either working without pay or have been told to stay at home “agree 100% with what I’m doing”.
“I may decide a national emergency depending on what happens over the next few days,” he said, insisting: “I have tremendous support within the Republican party.”
Vice-president Mike Pence was set to take part in talks on Sunday afternoon, although the meeting was due to include congressional aides rather than leaders and it is not clear that Pence has authority to offer any deal.
As he boarded Marine One, Trump cited human trafficking and claimed “there has never been a time when our country was so infested with so many different drugs”.
“Everybody’s playing games but I’ll tell you this, I think the Democrats want to make a deal,” he said. “This shutdown could end tomorrow or it also could go on for a long time.”
Trump said on Friday the shutdown could go on for years. The president’s language over the nature of the wall also continues to shift.
“The barrier or the wall can be of steel instead of concrete if that works better,” he said. “I intend to call the head of United States Steel and a couple of other steel companies to have them come up with a plate or a design … we’ll use that as our barrier.”
He claimed the wall “will pay for itself many times”.
On Fox News Sunday, asked if an emergency order was really viable, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said: “Whatever action he takes will certainly be lawful and we’re looking at every option we can. This is something the president takes incredibly seriously, is very passionate about, and is not going to stop until he figures out the best way to make sure we’re doing everything we can to make America safer and more secure.”
On CNN’s State of the Union, Mick Mulvaney, acting White House chief of staff since 1 January, said he was “heavily involved” in talking to all government departments “to try to find money we can legally use to defend the southern border”.
Mulvaney also sought to present Trump’s shift to steel for his wall, from concrete, as a significant concession.
“It came up the other day,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press, “in the private meeting with the ‘big eight’, as they’re called, the leaders of the House, the Senate, the Republicans, the Democrats. It was that he was willing to agree, and he mentioned this at the Rose Garden press conference, to take a concrete wall off the table.”
That meeting went nowhere, though, and however the White House describes Trump’s demand, Democratic opposition is unlikely to weaken. The House this week oversaw the passage of two funding bills without wall money. Public polling shows majorities against a wall.
By any measure, Trump’s fixation with a wall has boxed him into a corner. The New York Times reported on Saturday that it all began in 2014, when advisers needed a way to make the undisciplined speaker remember his key promises.
“How do we get him to continue to talk about immigration?” Sam Nunberg, one such adviser, told the Times he asked another, Roger Stone. “We’re going to get him to talk about he’s going to build a wall.”
Trump duly did, promising Mexico would pay for it, another vow now seemingly dropped although the president claims an as yet unratified trade deal with Mexico and Canada will provide savings that will pay for the wall. Factcheckers dispute that.
Trump is aware of his predicament: as long ago as January 2017, a leaked transcript of a call with the Mexican president showed him saying he was in a “political bind, because I have to have Mexico pay for the wall – I have to. I’ve been talking about it for a two-year period.”
On NBC on Sunday, Mulvaney said of the switch to steel: “What’s driving this is the president’s desire to change the conditions at the border. And if he has to give up a concrete wall and replace it with a steel fence in order to do that, so that Democrats can say, ‘See, he’s not building a wall anymore,’ that should help us move forward.”
On Twitter and in public, however, Trump has relentlessly demanded a wall, using the word repeatedly, on Saturday as part of an attempted Game of Thrones meme, over a picture of a fence. Mulvaney’s NBC interview took a similar turn towards the bizarre when, asked if the president no longer wanted a wall but wanted a fence, he said: “The president is going to secure the border with a barrier …
“I think he said [on Friday] he was going to secure the border with a 30ft-high barrier. I think he actually tweeted a picture out of it two weeks ago. We told the Democrats about it two weeks ago: ‘This is what we want to build. Do you think this is a wall?’
“Actually, under the way the law is written right now, technically it’s not a wall. If that’s not evidence of the president’s desire to try and resolve this, I don’t know what is.”
While such talk continued, around 800,000 Americans remained without pay. Key government services including E-Verify, which allows employers to check the immigration status of employees, are either down or, like the food stamps system that helps 38 million people, facing cuts.
Courts and airports are feeling the strain, national parks are short-staffed, museums and galleries are closed. It was however reported that one federally maintained attraction was still manned: the clock tower at the building which houses Trump’s Washington hotel.