Donald Trump has backed away from his threat to declare a national emergency to fund his long-promised border wall, as pressure mounts to find a solution to the three-week impasse that has closed parts of the government, leaving hundreds of thousands of workers without pay.
“We want Congress to do its job,” the president said Friday during a roundtable on border security at the White House. “What we’re not looking to do right now is national emergency.”
Trump’s comments came amid reports that he was consulting White House attorneys and allies about declaring a national emergency, and using presidential powers to take unilateral action to construct the wall over the objections of Congress. He had earlier claimed that his lawyers told him the action would withstand legal scrutiny “100%”.
Such a move to bypass Congress’s constitutional control of the nation’s purse strings would spark legal challenges and bipartisan cries of executive overreach.
Trump insisted on Friday he had the right to declare a national emergency, but said: “I’m not going to do it so fast.”
The president instead called on Democrats to find a way out of the shutdown, which on Saturday would become the longest in US history, with still no end to the deadlock in sight.
About 800,000 workers, more than half of them still on the job, were to miss their first paycheck on Friday under the stoppage. Those markers – along with growing effects to national parks, food inspections and the economy overall – left some Republicans on Capitol Hill increasingly uncomfortable with Trump’s demands.
Asked about the plight of those going without pay, the president shifted the focus, saying he felt badly “for people that have family members that have been killed” by “criminals” who came over the border.
Protests nonetheless erupted in Washington, as hundreds of furloughed government employees and contractors rallied outside the White House demanding to return to work.
Brandishing signs that read “We want work, not walls”, the demonstrators voiced concern over paying their bills absent a paycheck.
Trump was not at the White House at the time of the protest. The president visited McAllen, Texas, and the Rio Grande on Thursday to highlight what he calls a crisis of drugs and crime.
He said that “if for any reason we don’t get this going” – an agreement with House Democrats who have refused to approve the $5.7bn he demands for the wall – “I will declare a national emergency.”
A congressional official said the White House has directed the Army Corps of Engineers to look for billions of dollars earmarked last year for disaster response for Puerto Rico and other areas that could be diverted to a border wall as part of the emergency declaration. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly.
“We’re either going to have a win, make a compromise – because I think a compromise is a win for everybody – or I will declare a national emergency,” Trump said before departing the White House for his politically flavored visit to the border. He wore his campaign-slogan “Make America Great Again” cap throughout.
Jenniffer González, Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, said it was “unacceptable” for Trump to consider taking billions of dollars intended to help the US territory recover from Hurricane Maria, a category 4 storm that ravaged the island and left nearly 3,000 dead.
To reallocate disaster recovery funds toward the wall, she said, was akin to “playing with our pain and hope”.
It was not clear what a compromise might entail, and there were no indications that one was in the offing. Trump says he won’t reopen the government without money for the wall. Democrats say they favor measures to bolster border security but oppose the long, impregnable barrier that Trump envisages.
Democrats this week accused Trump of using rhetoric “full of misinformation and even malice” in his arguments to support the funding of the wall.
The Republican senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said at one point that he did not “see a path in Congress” to end the shutdown, then stated later that enough was enough: “It is time for President Trump to use emergency powers to fund the construction of a border wall/barrier.”
Visiting a border patrol station in McAllen, Trump viewed tables piled with weapons and narcotics. Like nearly all drugs trafficked across the border, they were intercepted by agents at official ports of entry, he was told, and not in the remote areas where he wants to extend tall barriers.
Still, he declared: “A wall works. Nothing like a wall.”
He argued that the US can’t solve the problem without a “very substantial barrier” along the border, but offered exaggerations about the effectiveness of border walls and current apprehensions of those crossing illegally.
Sitting among border patrol officers, state and local officials and military representatives, Trump insisted he was “winning” the shutdown fight and criticized Democrats for asserting he was manufacturing a sense of crisis in order to declare an emergency.
On Capitol Hill, House speaker Nancy Pelosi accused the president of engaging in political games to fire up his most loyal supporters, suggesting that a heated meeting Wednesday with legislators at the White House had been “a setup” so that Trump could walk out of it.
In an ominous sign for those seeking a swift end to the showdown, Trump announced he was canceling his trip to Davos, Switzerland, scheduled for later this month, citing Democrats’ “intransigence” on border security. He was to leave Jan. 21 to attend the World Economic Forum.
The partial shutdown would set a record early Saturday, stretching beyond the 21-day closure that ended 6 January 1996, during Bill Clinton’s administration.