- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2019

As President Trump declared a national emergency at the southern border, claiming powers to shift money within the federal budget to build new walls, his opponents have warned he’s breaking the Constitution, setting a dangerous precedent for future presidents and stealing money from other needy projects.

The White House held a call with reporters to try to explain and dispel. Here’s a sense of its defense:

Question: How much money is involved?

Answer: The White House says it expects to have a total of about $8 billion. Of that, $1.375 is in the spending deal Mr. Trump signed, while $600 million is from a Treasury Department forfeiture fund, $2.5 billion will be in a Pentagon counter-drug fund, and $3.6 billion is from money Congress earmarked for military construction projects.

Q: Why does the president need to declare a national emergency to get the money?

A: It turns out he doesn’t need an emergency for the majority of the money, the White House says. The forfeiture fund and the counter-drug fund can be reprogrammed under normal appropriations laws. The $3.6 billion in military construction money, though, does take an emergency declaration.

Q: How much wall will that money build?

A: It’s unclear, but officials say it should at least cover the 234 miles that would have been built if Congress had approved Mr. Trump’s $5.7 billion request.

Q: Can the president now build a concrete wall?

A: He probably could — the restrictions Congress imposed only apply to the $1.375 billion that lawmakers agreed to in the new spending deal. But the White House says it plans to stick with the current steel bollard fence design that’s been used for the last decade, and which is Border Patrol agents’ preference.

Using the extra money, though, could allow the administration to tweak those designs to make them more climb-resistant, which is agents’ chief worry.

Q: How much does the fence cost per mile?

A: The president, as a real estate mogul, has said he can build cheaper than people would imagine. In fact, wall-building so far has been far more expensive under his administration than in the past. Sections built under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama cost between $4 million and $6 million per mile, depending on locations, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Mr. Trump’s $5.7 billion request would have built 234 miles, so that works out to $24.4 million per mile. The $1.375 billion Congress approved would have built 55 miles, which is $25 million per mile.

Q: Most of the national emergency declarations in the past have imposed sanctions. Has it ever been used to move money over Congress’ express wishes?

A: The White House says it’s happened at least twice, by both Bush presidents, first in 1990 and then in 2001. They transferred a total of $1.4 billion.

“This is not something that is unprecedented,” an official told reporters.

Q: If the president does this, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says a future Democratic president could declare an emergency on liberal priorities like guns.

A: The White House dismissed those fears, saying the National Emergencies Act has been around since the 1970s and if Democrats had thought it could be used on guns, they would have done it before.

“It actually creates zero precedent,” said acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. “This is authority given to the president in law already. It’s not as if he didn’t get what he wanted and waved a magic wand.”

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