The government shutdown has led President Donald Trump to consider declaring a national emergency, which, as The Atlantic outlines, would give him wide-ranging powers with vague limits.
The President has complete discretion to declare a national emergency relating to immigration at the border with Mexico. In this case, Trump could issue an emergency proclamation under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), which says that the president may declare a national emergency “to deal with any unusual and extraordinary threat” that “has its source in whole or substantial part outside the United States.”
Under the IEEPA, Trump could decide that any American in the U.S. offering support to asylum seekers or other undocumented immigrants in the U.S. is “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to national security, which would allow the Treasury Department to take action against that person.
The National Emergencies Act of 1976 does not require that the powers invoked by the president relate to the emergency, an ambiguity which could easily lead to disaster. Among other things, the president would have the power to:
Suspend the law that bars government testing of biological and chemical agents on unaware human subjects.
Seize control of U.S. internet traffic
Control computer systems (ex. States’ voter databases) and physical devices that are connected to the internet.
Freeze assets and block financial transactions
Deploy troops in the U.S.
Although many presidents have declared a state of emergency in the past, this situation is distinct because it is arguably not an emergency at all. Examples of past emergencies are World War II and 9/11. Now, illegal immigration to the United States is actually down, and is by no means comparable to past emergencies. In this case, the president may be declaring a false emergency solely to hold on to power.
Historically, the response to false emergency has been dealt with through the courts, such as in the case of Truman’s attempted nationalization of the steel mills during the Korean War. The Court ruled that Truman had violated the separation of powers, and thus could not nationalize the mills. While President Truman disagreed, he complied with the ruling.
While Truman could not nationalize the steel mills, he was acting in the interest of his country during a national emergency and the Court responded accordingly. With that in mind, what would be the response to a false emergency? President Trump could face accusations of authoritarian behavior. More, his actions could potentially lead to impeachment.