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Veto or Die: The Republican Party’s Desperation Under President Trump

After declaring a national emergency, the president plans to override Congress’s refusal to finance his border wall. And the Republican Party has once again buckled under the will of its leader.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Thursday, President Donald Trump celebrated a milestone with a tweet so succinct and self-explanatory that the formal exercise, whenever the president gets around to it, will seem redundant: “VETO!” It’ll be the first veto of his presidency.

On Thursday, the Senate voted to overturn the president’s national emergency declaration aimed at the U.S.-Mexico border. (The House had already passed the measure.) One month ago, Trump declared said national emergency to resolve an acute political crisis. The president wanted to build a wall, but Congress refused to finance the construction, so Trump extracted the money from various federal agencies by executive order. There’s virtually nothing Congress can do to stop him, though the Supreme Court might eventually intervene. The National Emergencies Act, passed in September 1976, empowers the president to address various crises, but it’s not quite designed for the president to fulfill various campaign promises regardless of Congress.

The Republican conference has, as half-heartedly as ever, tried to restrain —or, at least, rationalize—Trump’s impulses. Mitch McConnell has agonized and vacillated about the emergency declaration, which the Senate majority leader seems to regret but support nonetheless. Other Republican lawmakers proved more decisively rebellious. In February, North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis warned his fellow Republicans in a Washington Post op-ed: “They should be thinking about whether they would accept the prospect of a President Bernie Sanders declaring a national emergency to implement parts of the radical Green New Deal,” Tillis wrote. But on Thursday, Tillis voted against the resolution to terminate the national emergency. After his reversal, he offered the following statement: “I was showing deference to the president as a result of that. Particularly in light of the fact that I also agree with [Trump’s] priority on the border. It was only the mechanism. It wasn’t what he did, it was how he did it.” It’s easy for us to make an inference about what happened here: Trump and Mike Pence pressured Tillis in private while conservative activists developed plans to challenge his incumbency in his state’s 2020 GOP primary. So Tillis reneged.

Trump first threatened to declare a national emergency at the border in the first week of the new year. The longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history was quite the slog, and though Trump “won” six billion dollars for the project by declaring the national emergency, he lost confidence among congressional Republicans. For the past couple months, Trump’s allies put up half-hearted resistance against the declaration. As conservatives, they cited constitutional concerns about the separation of powers and the imperial executive; but as Republicans, they once again rallied around Trump as their ultimate benefactor. Still, twelve Republican senators voted for the resolution to reverse the emergency declaration. Trump lost Mitt Romney, who once supported Trump’s rationale. “For the executive branch to override a law passed by Congress would make it the ultimate power rather than a balancing power,” Romney said. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a libertarian, agreed. “We may want more money for border security,” Paul said, “but Congress didn’t authorize it. If we take away those checks and balances, it’s a dangerous thing.” McConnell says he repeatedly advised Trump against declaring a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border for these exact reasons. “There’s a lot of discomfort with the law,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday, teasing some proposals to amend the National Emergencies Act to empower Congress to terminate national emergencies despite objections from the executive branch. Senior Utah Senator Mike Lee, who initially supported Trump’s national emergency declaration, ultimately voted with Romney in support for the resolution. So congressional Republicans have offered enough support to pass the resolution, but they’ve fallen short of the margin required to override Trump’s veto.

The group of Republican defectors proved larger than Trump’s domination of the party typically allows. Even the dissenters lead with a loyalty oath. Paul’s defection, published as a Fox News column, explicitly states: “I support President Trump.” The headline for Tillis’s experimental defection in the Washington Post: “I support Trump’s vision on border security.” There’s agreement here, clearly. “In fact, I agree that a physical barrier is urgently needed to help ease the humanitarian crisis at the southern border,” Romney says. The fact that Republicans would largely support Trump’s right-wing immigration agenda is obvious enough. It’s only ever surprising to see congressional Republicans so frequently desperate to clarify their support for the president despite their occasional disagreements. In his Fox News op-ed, Paul attempts to reconcile his party’s beliefs with what his party—Trump’s party—routinely asks him to do. Paul underscores a righteous coherence to conservatism, and a relentlessly democratic bearing, where, apparently, none exists. The most persuasive “conservative” idea that Tillis could produce is that authoritarianism is bad only because Democrats might become authoritarians, too.

Congressional Republicans, and conservatives in general, support Trump. Now, there is no conservatism without Trump or outside of Trump. “We have to decide what is conservative and what isn’t conservative,” Rand Paul declared at a November 2015 debate, hosted by Fox Business Network, among the Republican presidential candidates. Under Trump, they’ve officially decided.