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It feels quaint – maybe a bit absurd – to remark the fact that Donald Trump has no constitutionally moral justification for his demand that Congress fund the building of a wall on the Mexican border. Such an argument feels absurd when made against this president. Yet it should not be insignificant to Congress.


The president ran on a promise to build a wall “paid for by Mexico”. No majority of Americans has ever voted to support that idea. But that idea is not the notion that is now shutting down the government. A wall paid for by taxpayers is.

That wall certainly was a central issue in the 2018 midterm elections. Overwhelmingly, the public rejected it as well. Thus has the president earned public support for neither version of his Mexican wall. Yet he is using his veto power to demand that Americans pay for a wall before he will allow the government to reopen.

The American constitution does not contemplate such presidential unilateralism, at least unsupported by the public’s will or the constitution. Perhaps the most salient historical parallel is President Andrew Johnson’s insistence that he had the constitutional right to control (and effectively stop) reconstruction after the civil war. Like Trump, Johnson insisted on his power; like Trump, he campaigned across the country to rally the nation to his view; like Trump, his view was overwhelmingly rejected at the polls; like Trump, nevertheless, he persisted – until a Congress, exhausted by his recalcitrance, impeached him and came within a single vote of conviction.  Read More

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