WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Friday that he "didn't need" to declare a national emergency to build a wall at the US–Mexico border, but was doing so because he wanted to do it "faster."
Anticipating court battles to come, civil rights attorneys cheered him on, highlighting Trump's remarks as undercutting any future argument by the administration that there is, in fact, a national emergency.
"Keep talking mr president," Omar Jadwat, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants Rights Project, tweeted.
Trump announced his decision to declare a national emergency in a Rose Garden speech Friday morning. In a call with reporters earlier in the day, acting Chief of Staff and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said the national emergency declaration by the president would give the administration access to $3.6 billion in military construction funds.
"I want to do it faster," Trump said Friday. "I can do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn't need to do this. I would rather do it much faster. I don't have to do it for the election. I have already done a lot of wall for the election 2020."
The reaction from left-leaning lawyers and Trump's critics on Twitter was swift.
"Y'all keep giving this man a microphone! Please and thank you," Kristine Kippins, director of policy at the Constitutional Accountability Center, tweeted.
George Conway, a conservative lawyer — and the husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway — who has been critical of the president, tweeted that Trump's comment "should be the first sentence of the first paragraph of every complaint filed this afternoon."
Former US attorney Joyce Vance tweeted that Trump's comments were a "gift to all the lawyers preparing to sue him." Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center for Justice tweeted that they were "plaintiffs' Exhibit A." Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe tweeted, "Some emergency!" Adi Kamdar, a fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute, tweeted, "The brief practically writes itself."
Trump's comments have gotten his administration into trouble in court before. During litigation over the travel ban executive orders, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and the ban on military service by transgender individuals, judges cited tweets from the president — which are considered official statements — that conflicted with arguments made by the Justice Department.
In addition to the military construction funds, the administration plans to tap into $600 million from the Treasury's Forfeiture Fund and reprogram $2.5 billion from money allocated for Department of Defense counterdrug activities; the president doesn't need to declare a national emergency to access those funds. Adding $1.375 billion appropriated by Congress, that gives the administration access to approximately $8 billion for border wall construction.
Liberal legal advocacy groups have already pledged to go to court to challenge the president's national emergency declaration. House Democrats, who can now exercise the power of the general counsel's office, have indicated they're prepared to bring a legal challenge as well.
"We'll see him in court," New York Rep. Eliot Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, tweeted Friday, calling the declaration of a national emergency at the border "a farce."
Public Citizen has announced that it plans to sue the administration on behalf of Texas landowners and a Texas environmental organization. Environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Earthjustice, have said they're considering litigation. The Democratic Attorneys General Association released a statement that didn't commit to litigation, but noted that they had "repeatedly demonstrated" that they "will not hesitate to use our legal authority to defend the rule of law."
The president has broad authority to declare a national emergency. The federal National Emergencies Act doesn't include a specific definition of what qualifies as an "emergency." Under the federal law the Trump administration plans to invoke to get access to the $3.6 billion, the secretary of defense can use money already appropriated for military construction to fund other military construction projects "necessary to support such use of the armed forces" during a national emergency "that requires use of the armed forces." The Trump administration has declined to specify what military construction funds they'll reprogram for the wall.
Public pronouncements of plans to sue the administration over the emergency declaration have been light on details — groups said they were waiting to see the specifics and actual text of whatever Trump issues.
Still, Brian Segee, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, told BuzzFeed News, "I anticipate we would look to be in court pretty quickly."
Former US attorney Joyce Vance's name was misstated in an earlier version of this post.