Trump’s “National Emergency” Is a Ploy Straight Out of Venezuela

Each country has a president who seizes power, and a party that’s blocking the legislature from stopping him.

Donald Trump, left, and Nicolas Maduro
Donald Trump, left, and Nicolás Maduro
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by STF/AFP/Getty Images and Nicholas KammI/AFP/Getty Images.

On Tuesday, House Republicans voted to support President Trump’s assertion of unchecked executive power. Trump has invoked a law passed 43 years ago—which was designed to facilitate presidential action in times of desperate haste, such as war or disaster—to seize power from Congress and override its explicit instructions. And Trump’s party is standing behind this assault on the Constitution, ensuring that Congress won’t be able to block him.

The GOP’s complicity is bitterly ironic because at the same time, Republicans are decrying a presidential coup against the national legislature of Venezuela. Unlike the United States, Venezuela is awash in economic chaos and political repression. But the behavior of Trump and his party since the November midterms bears an uncanny resemblance to the behavior of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his party after they lost that country’s 2015 legislative elections. Trump says Venezuela illustrates the perils of socialism. But it also illustrates the perils of authoritarianism, which the Republican Party of the United States now supports.

In December 2015, Venezuelans expressed their disgust with Maduro by electing the opposition to take over the National Assembly. Maduro ignored their rebuke. He declared a national emergency that gave him, according to the New York Times, “the power to bypass the National Assembly on spending matters.” In May 2016, Maduro renewed the emergency declaration, falsely claiming that the country faced a threat of invasion. He accused the opposition of petition fraud, obstructionism, and trying to impeach him.

The assembly voted to reject the emergency declaration. Lawmakers warned that no Venezuelan president had ever undertaken such emergency measures in defiance of a vote of the legislature. But Maduro’s allies on the supreme court upheld his declaration, and he plowed ahead. In the United States, Republicans mocked Maduro’s talk of an invasion and condemned him for overriding the assembly. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida called it a coup. “Democracy has been canceled,” said Rubio. “You have an elected national assembly being ignored.”

The assembly passed laws restricting Maduro’s authority. He ignored them, and the court upheld his right to act without legislative approval. In 2017, when he created an alternative legislative body, the Trump administration denounced his “power grab” and demanded that he “respect Venezuela’s constitution.” Vice President Mike Pence protested that Maduro had “ignored and undermined the National Assembly.” Trump imposed sanctions, claiming that Maduro had “usurped the power of the democratically elected National Assembly.”

In February 2018, Maduro seized more financial power by creating a digital currency. The assembly declared this move unconstitutional and void, but Maduro dismissed its verdict. Trump responded by imposing sanctions on anyone who used the new currency to evade sanctions. In its explanation of the sanctions, the Trump administration protested that Maduro had issued the currency “in a process that Venezuela’s democratically elected National Assembly has denounced as unlawful.”

Last month, Trump went further. He announced that the United States would recognize the assembly’s president, Juan Guaidó, as Venezuela’s true president. The assembly was “duly elected by the Venezuelan people,” said Trump. On this basis, the United States would honor Guaidó’s declaration that he, not Maduro, was the country’s legitimate leader. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed out that Guaidó “made this declaration with the full support of the National Assembly.”

House Republicans agreed that Maduro trampled the assembly and had to be stopped. Republican Whip Steve Scalise thanked Trump for “standing with the Venezuelan people” against Maduro. Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy said America had to ensure that “democracy [is] restored for the people of Venezuela.” Rep. Liz Cheney, chair of the House Republican Conference, praised “US efforts to support freedom for the people of Venezuela.” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a leading GOP voice on foreign policy, called on Americans to stand with Venezuelans against “the tyranny of Maduro.”

That’s the Republican position on authoritarianism in Venezuela. But at home, the Republican position is just the opposite. In November, Americans expressed their disgust with Trump—a president who never even won the popular vote—by electing the opposition to take over the House of Representatives. The new Congress voted to reject Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to build a border wall. Trump, like Maduro, responded by dismissing the will of the legislature. He declared a national emergency and asserted, through his control of the military, the power to spend money that Congress, in its exercise of constitutionally assigned power, had refused to appropriate.

Like Maduro, Trump accused the opposition of voter fraud, obstructionism, and trying to impeach him. Like Maduro, Trump claimed that he had to assume unilateral authority because his country faced a fictional “invasion.” Like Maduro, Trump ignored precedents that had previously limited the assertion of emergency powers. Like Maduro, he hopes his allies on the Supreme Court will stand by him.

On Tuesday, House Republicans voted 182 to 13 against a resolution to terminate Trump’s power grab. They couldn’t stop the resolution, because Democrats hold the majority. But the GOP’s votes are enough to ensure that when Trump vetoes the resolution, as he has pledged to do, the House can’t override his veto. The Republican Party has decided to stand not for the rule of law, but for the rule of Trump. It is no longer a republican party.

At a press conference on Tuesday morning, House Republicans defended Trump’s declaration and endorsed his deployment of the U.S. military to the southern border. “The president has the authority to do it,” said McCarthy. “There is an emergency at the border,” said Cheney. “This is a national emergency,” agreed Kinzinger. Scalise claimed that “there’s no physical barrier to control our border”—which is false—and vowed that Republicans would “stand with the president.” He insisted, “The president is on strong legal ground to declare this emergency.”

We are not Venezuela. We don’t have runaway inflation and crime, corrupt state control of the economy, or routine incarceration for political dissent. But we do have the first two ingredients: a president willing to seize power, and a party willing to block the legislature from stopping him. It’s not the left that is threatening to turn the United States into Venezuela. It’s the right.