At the beginning of the year, as the partial government shutdown dragged on without an end in sight, the Trump administration mulled using a state of emergency to bypass deadlocked funding negotiations in Congress and secure funds for a border wall. The ensuing “will he, won’t he?” consumed much media attention—speculation swelled, for example, that Trump might declare the emergency in his first televised address from the Oval Office. (He instead served reheated talking points; networks were criticized for airing them live.) More than a month later, Trump finally pulled the trigger after signing a wall-less funding package to reopen the government.
Throughout this period, much of the mainstream press treated the potential—then actual—state of emergency as a pretty big deal. Most major outlets made clear that there is no real emergency at the southern border, repeatedly punching holes in the administration’s misleading rhetoric and misuse of official statistics. Many of those same outlets, however, also warned that a declaration of emergency, justified or not, could give Trump alarmingly broad executive authority. In early January, for instance, Andrea Pitzer, author of a global history of concentration camps, wrote in The Washington Post that “a fake emergency could trigger a real catastrophe—one that a split Congress would be unlikely to resolve and that a Supreme Court sympathetic to an imperial presidency might even worsen.”
It’s striking, then, that the emergency has moved way down the news cycle since Trump declared it 11 days ago. The story has stalled as its next steps have taken time to take shape. And Trump, whose behavior has been decidedly non-urgent, has not pushed it with maximum force. “Why have we heard so little from… the president?” CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked early last week, pointing out that Trump spent the days following the declaration at Mar-a-Lago. (Trump has continued to tweet about the supposed crisis at the border, including a missive yesterday morning.) Nonetheless, this feels like a fresh iteration of a familiar challenge for the press. Hyping Trump’s immigration rhetoric gives it an unwarranted platform—throwing around the word “emergency” amplifies a clear lie, even if you debunk it in the process. Yet the real, legal state of emergency Trump has declared demands sustained scrutiny and vigilance.
Yesterday, Trump’s emergency declaration resurfaced near the top of the news cycle as weighty new developments crystallized. A bipartisan group of 58 former national security officials signed an open letter rebuking Trump’s move as having “no factual basis.” And with the House of Representatives set to pass a motion blocking Trump’s declaration today, media focus turned to its prospects in the Senate, where it currently sits on a knife-edge. Last night, Thom Tillis, the Republican senator for North Carolina, revealed, in a widely covered Post op-ed, that he supports Trump’s vision on border security, but would vote with Democrats to end the emergency: “There is no intellectual honesty in now turning around and arguing that there’s an imaginary asterisk attached to executive overreach—that it’s acceptable for my party but not thy party,” he wrote.
The news cycle around the emergency seems to be responding to what politicians are saying about it, rather than some independent standard of what is at stake. This is understandable—we don’t yet know what the courts think about this and so the ball, for now, is in politicians’ court—but it’s also a problem. Some legislators who were interviewed yesterday said their concerns about immigration override their concerns about a presidential power grab. But there are two separate issues at stake here: the actual situation at the border, and the constitutional implications of what Trump is doing about it. News outlets, by and large, have done a good job unpacking the truth behind the former. But the latter remains muddy, and hasn’t really received the same type of independent scrutiny.
As hard as it is when so many issues demand ongoing attention, it’s important to sustain aggressive coverage of longer-term problems as long as those problems continue to demand it. Another development in the House today has attracted less chatter than the emergency vote: a Judiciary Committee hearing on child separations. That scandal is very much ongoing—last week, a court filing revealed that at least 245 children have been separated from their families since the administration pledged to stop the practice last June—and yet public attention has largely fallen away. Trump’s emergency power grab shouldn’t go the same way.
Below, more on the national emergency and the border:
- Executive time: While Trump’s declaration of a national emergency is remarkable for its scope and potential political and constitutional ramifications, the practice is not new. The Brennan Center for Justice has a list of the 59 emergencies declared under the National Emergencies Act between its passage, in 1976, and the end of last year. The Obama administration was responsible for 12 of them. Prior to the wall emergency, the most recent involved blocking the property of persons “contributing to the situation in Nicaragua.” It did not receive much attention.
- Where did he get that from? Trump tweeted on Sunday that “suburban women are coming back into the Republican Party in droves” due to his stance on the wall and border security. The Post’s Philip Bump debunked the figures cited in the tweet. “No, Trump’s national emergency declaration hasn’t erased his problem with suburban women,” he wrote.
- Upping sticks: For CJR, Tiffany Stevens looks at the reporters who’ve relocated to the US–Mexico border to better understand what’s going on there. “Our view was not to really focus on any one place, but to have eyes and ears on the border 24/7, so that we can start seeing the stories that you only get when you live, work, eat and breathe in a place,” Kim Murphy, deputy national editor at The New York Times, tells Stevens.
- #MeToo: Another Trump story that’s received remarkably little sustained attention: the multiple allegations of sexual misconduct women have made against him. Yesterday, another one came to light: Alva Johnson, who worked on Trump’s campaign, says, in a lawsuit, that Trump kissed her without her consent in August 2016, the Post’s Beth Reinhard and Alice Crites report. Trump denies the account.
Other notable stories:
- Jorge Ramos and five colleagues from Univision were detained at the presidential palace in Venezuela last night following an interview with Nicolás Maduro, the country’s embattled president, CNN’s Brian Stelter reports. Authorities confiscated equipment and tapes of the interview, before releasing the journalists. Ramos later said on Univision that Maduro “got up from the interview after I showed him the videos of some young people eating out of a garbage truck.” Last month, I wrote about the Maduro regime’s war on the free press for CJR.
- In December, George Pell, the most senior Catholic cleric in Australia, was convicted of child sex abuse. While some international outlets reported the news, those covering the trial in Australia were banned from doing so under the terms of a suppression order levied to prevent a slated second trial from being prejudiced. As a second set of charges has now been dropped, the suppression order has been lifted. “Journalists sat through one of the most high-profile trials held in any court in the world, without permission to report a moment of it—until now,” Emma Younger writes for Australia’s ABC News.
- We published the first pieces from CJR’s new “Perception Issue” yesterday. Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, writes that journalists need to “get over ourselves” to gain a better perspective on the outside world. A poll we commissioned with Reuters/Ipsos finds low confidence in the press among the public. And Lauren Smiley explores a partisan site in Alabama that exploits trust in local news.
- Early this morning, Vietnamese officials ordered the White House press corps to vacate the Hanoi hotel it had been using as a base ahead of Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un this week. The same hotel is preparing to welcome Kim; reporters will now work from an international media center instead. It wasn’t immediately clear who ordered the switch, but it is “highly unusual because the White House had approved of and supported the use of the space by media who cover the president,” NBC’s Jonathan Allen reports.
- The Verge’s Casey Newton has a shocking deep-dive on the working conditions and mental-health challenges faced by the contract workers who moderate content for Facebook: “Conspiracy videos and memes that they see each day gradually lead them to embrace fringe views,” Newton writes. “One auditor walks the floor promoting the idea that the Earth is flat. A former employee told me he has begun to question certain aspects of the Holocaust. Another former employee… said: ‘I no longer believe 9/11 was a terrorist attack.’”
- Five months after Ian Buruma left The New York Review of Books after publishing, then defending, an essay by a Canadian broadcaster accused of sexual misconduct, the Review appointed both Emily Greenhouse and Gabriel Winslow-Yost to replace him as editor. “The shared-power arrangement echoes the history of the magazine, which was founded in 1963 by Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein and edited by the pair until Epstein’s death in 2006,” the Times’s John Williams writes.
- And, in local news news, journalists at The Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania, announced their intention to unionize yesterday. The Seattle Weekly is going out of print after 43 years, leaving the city without a true alt-weekly. And authorities in Oakland, California, made two arrests in connection with Sunday’s robbery of a local news crew, whose security guard was shot in the leg. The guard is now out of the hospital.