President Trump appears to be testing the American political system’s tolerance for soft dictatorship through the cavalier—and potentially illegal—use of presidential emergency powers. On February 15, after months of blustery threats, he declared a national emergency on the southern US border and dispatched the Army Corps of Engineers to administer the construction of a wall by private contractors in order to stop the flow of migrants and drugs into the country from Mexico. Congress has delegated to the president broad authority to invoke a national emergency, presidents have done it dozens of times, and the courts have shown little appetite for questioning the president’s emergency powers. But the legal, political, and factual background to Trump’s declaration illuminates its egregiousness.
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