President Donald Trump is inching toward declaring a national emergency to secure funding for his long-sought wall on the southern border, repeatedly telling reporters late last week that he may take that step if Congress does not reach a border security compromise he approves of before government funding expires on February 15. If Trump does declare a national emergency, he will be prioritizing the advice of his trusted propagandists at Fox News, who have been urging him to do so for the last month, over the counsel of Republican legislators who have been warning him away from the tactic.
A national emergency declaration would be the strongest sign yet that the conservative propagandists at Fox are effectively running the federal government. Their programs and private counsel are fueling Trump’s decisions, raising dire questions about the nation’s governance and stability.
The feedback loop between Trump and Fox played a key role in causing the partial government shutdown that lasted for a record 35 days between December 21 and January 25, as I noted Sunday in a piece for The Daily Beast:
Trump’s incessant craving for validation from the network’s conservative commentators triggered his initial refusal to sign any legislation funding the government that did not include money for a border wall, and then that need sustained his intransigence over the following weeks. His eventual cave shows the limitations of prioritizing the whims of right-wing infotainers during congressional negotiations. But there is no evidence Trump has learned anything from the crushing defeat, suggesting that he will continue trying to make policy with respect to the wall and other issues, on the basis of whether it pleases Fox hosts.
Trump first suggested in early January that he might declare a national emergency and reallocate funding appropriated for other purposes, such as military construction or disaster relief, to build the wall. Ever since, some congressional Republicans have objected on the grounds that the executive branch would be seizing legislative power, that the move could set a new precedent for when Democrats win the White House, that it would trigger a long legal struggle, or that it could be stymied by a congressional resolution disapproving the declaration.
For a few weeks, those Republicans were successful, and the president backed down.
But Trump is being pulled between them and the Fox advisers begging him to go through with it.
For much of his presidency, Trump has devoted hours of each day to watching cable news programs, frequently live-tweeted his favorite Fox shows, and treated the network’s stars like members of his cabinet. Now he is poised to take their advice and declare a national emergency.
Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs, Fox hosts whom the president reportedly leaned on for advice about how to manage the shutdown, seem to have played key roles in this drama. The pair of loyal propagandists, who each championed Trump's shutdown, had very different reactions when Trump agreed to sign a three-week continuing resolution without wall funding. Hannity claimed that anyone “thinking President Trump caved today, you don't really know the Donald Trump I know,” while Dobbs said it was a “victory for Nancy Pelosi” and anyone saying otherwise is “try[ing] to escape from reality.” But in the weeks before and after Trump’s decision, both used their programs to urge Trump to declare a national emergency, exhorting their audiences to support him if he did.
Hannity, who regularly speaks with Trump and has been described by White House aides as the administration’s “shadow” chief of staff, said on his January 7 show, “Without a doubt, this is a national emergency. It's time to build the wall.” The next night he argued, “This is a national emergency. The situation is now dire. And whether or not we secure our border, it does have real life or death consequences.” He added on his January 9 broadcast that Trump had “the full authority and power to declare a national emergency and tackle this head on,” adding, “This is about protecting our homeland.”
During an often incoherent January 10 softball interview with Hannity, Trump said he “most likely” would declare a national emergency if he “can’t make a deal with Congress.” He also said he had watched Hannity’s show the previous night and praised him for producing “real news,” not “fake news.”
Since then, Hannity has called for Trump to declare an emergency to secure wall funding on his January 11, January 15, January 16, January 23, January 24, January 25, January 28, January 29, January 30, and January 31 programs. “Now, the president holds all the cards. He gets no deal, February 15th, I'll give you odds,” Hannity argued on Wednesday night. “I'm 99 percent certain that he will lawfully declare a national emergency or just send down the military and start building the wall with defense funds.”
Dobbs’ commentary has been even more over-the-top, with the Fox Business host using explicitly authoritarian language in urging Trump to seize more power and crush his enemies.
“This is the president of the United States,” Dobbs said January 9. “He says a wall should be built; that it's a national emergency. At that point, the nation should rally behind him, Democrats as well as Republicans.”
“I really believe,” he added the next night, “that the way forward here is for [Trump] to declare a national emergency and simply sweep aside the recalcitrant left in this country. They have -- they have obstructed, resisted, and subverted for far too long.”
The drumbeat has continued, with Dobbs pushing for a national emergency declaration on January 11, January 14, January 15, January 23, January 24, January 25, January 28, January 29, January 30, January 31, and February 1. “There is only one way forward and that is an honest straightforward declaration of a national emergency, because that's where we are,” Dobbs said on one such broadcast. “This president has no choice but to act, and act I am confident he will.”
Other Fox News hosts and personalities have called for the president to declare a national emergency on the network’s airwaves, including longtime Trump friend and confidante Jeanine Pirro and Fox & Friends’ Pete Hegseth and Steve Doocy.
There were some moments of dissent on the network, even on the president’s favored programs. Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade argued that the strategy is flawed because the courts have repeatedly “turned on the president,” while Fox senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano flatly warned the program’s audience that declaring a national emergency to get funding for his wall would be unconstitutional. But those moments were rare, and they were quickly washed away with more b-roll of border chaos and warnings about violent undocumented criminals.
This same battle for the president’s ear between congressional Republicans and Fox hosts eventually ended with December’s partial government shutdown. Several times last year, spending bills that the White House and Congress had agreed to were nearly torpedoed at the last minute when the president heard someone on his television saying that he should oppose the bills and even shut down the government over them because they lacked wall funding. For a while, Republican leaders were able to talk him out of it, until eventually they couldn’t.
Now it’s happening again.