There are few powers so broad as the U.S. president’s when acting in the interest of national security. Since the Roman Republic and before, many societies have acknowledged a presumptive validity to executive intervention in moments of crisis. The United States is little different in that regard. The trend here, as summarized by legal scholars Eric Posner and Adrian Vermeule, is that “when national emergencies strike, the executive acts, Congress acquiesces, and courts defer.” Especially since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the principle of national security has lent enormous discretion to Presidents to act as they please. Even so, President Trump’s own invocations have been remarkably public, informal, and eclectic.
In that sense, the president’s recent denouncements of the anonymous writer of a New York Times op-ed typify the way that he wields the rhetoric of national security. In the span of three days, the president claimed that the Times “must, for National Security purposes, turn [the writer] over to government at once,” that the Times should reveal the writer’s name “for the sake of our national security,” that Attorney General Sessions should investigate for the same reason, and that the article is fundamentally “a national security matter.” The barrage illustrates both how willing President Trump is to cite a national security interest in the pursuit of domestic or personal preference, and how his blazing rhetoric is often divorced from action.
An examination of the president’s public remarks since his inauguration, as catalogued on factba.se, shows that he has specifically mentioned national security hundreds of times on 81 different occasions. If we exclude mundane announcements, as when he introduced John Bolton as his new National Security Advisor, and formulaic expressions such as his pledge to “rebuild America, restore its economic strength, and defend its national security,” President Trump has related national security to a particular issue, proposal, policy or desire at least 67 times.
Of the issues that he has addressed, immigration and the border are his most familiar subjects. He has invoked national security in those contexts on 28 occasions catalogued by factba.se, accounting for 42 percent of the total. Trade is next; it was mentioned on 12 occasions for another 18 percent. By comparison, Trump has rarely invoked national security in a military context. Of the five occasions he has done so, three were while discussing the budget. He appears to have connected diplomacy to national security but once, citing it as the fourth pillar of his National Security Strategy — but only so far as it depended on “building up our wealth and power at home.”
President Trump has also harnessed the generally somber rhetoric of national security to express grievances. Months before complaining about his anonymous critic, he bitterly protested that he had been forced to sign a spending bill he detested for the sake of national security. He has claimed that the “failing” New York Times has endangered the same with its reporting. An entire year after his election, he criticized his former opponent as a danger to national security, and suggested that she would be prosecuted if not for the influence of a conspiracy among civil servants.
There are occasions when President Trump deploys the rhetoric of national security in a more conventional manner. This year and the last, he stood before news cameras to inform the nation that the United States had attacked Syria with missiles and then airplanes because Bashar al-Assad had deployed chemical weapons, and that establishing a forceful deterrent to their continued use served “a vital national security interest.” Though they differed in the particulars, both Presidents Obama and Bush also reserved their right to exercise violence in similar circumstances and for similar reasons.
Convention is not, however, a rule that President Trump abides. During his first year in office, the president declared that economic and national security are not “merely related,” but one and the same. From that belief, he ordered the study and then the imposition of protectionist tariffs to shield domestic steel and aluminum production. Even coal, he said, is “coming back for another reason: national security.” But, regardless of his claims, President Trump’s national security justifications have convinced few of the legislators from whom the authority to make such decisions flows.
When the president raised the possibility of tariffs at a bipartisan meeting last February, Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, criticized his legal arguments. “Countervailing duty and the dumping” was one thing, Senator Toomey said, but “the 232 is a different matter, and invoking national security, when I think it’s really hard to make that case, invites retaliation that will be problematic for us.” Another Republican, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, similarly noted the “absence of what I can see as a real national security threat.”
Although no claim of national security necessity is immune to criticism, the division between the president and his own party on the issue stands out. Besides reflecting fundamental policy disagreements, the president’s own haphazard invocations of national security have apparently diminished their rhetorical weight. After Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau derided President Trump’s tariff justifications as “insulting and unacceptable,” President Trump declared that “it’s absolutely national security,” but then contradicted himself by tweeting that they were in fact retaliatory only hours later.
Similar confusion abounded when the president’s order banning travel from predominantly Muslim countries worked its way from ideation to policy and through court challenges. Although the government was making its case on the plain language of the statute upon which the president had relied, it was also contending with impromptu statements from a man for whom immigration has been a long-favored subject, many of which undercut the arguments that the government’s lawyers were making on his behalf.
From an early speech in which he declared that “a lack of [border] security poses a substantial threat to the sovereignty and safety of the United States,” President Trump has linked immigration, the border and national security more often than any other issue. Besides repeatedly asserting that “immigration security is national security,” he explicitly invoked the concept to call for the passage of pending legislation in a series of statements across three days, saying that the proposed bills were vital to ensuring national security. Similarly, he also criticized so-called “chain migration” and the visa-lottery system as dangers to national security on six different occasions. Once, to claim that a terror attack in New York would not have occurred but for them.
The last claim is especially noteworthy because it was accompanied by a shifting series of factual claims. First, that the attacker was “the primary point of contact for … 23 people that came in, or potentially came in with him,” then months later that he had brought along 22 relatives, or even that “18 people came in, 22 people came in, 30 people came in with this one person that just killed a lot of people.”
The significance is that national security deference relies on an assumption that the executive is most equipped to judge the nature of a crisis, and that even when the courts assert jurisdiction to rule on a national security dispute, they should at least defer to the executive’s factual judgement. When a President hardly pretends to accuracy, the last is less certain.