Donald Trump said on Sunday he may declare a national emergency over immigration, to allow him to build a wall on America’s southern border.

As the government shutdown triggered by the president entered its 16th day, Trump threatened to take extraordinary action to bypass Congress, where Democrats refuse to pass a spending bill that would give him $5.6bn to build his wall. New House speaker Nancy Pelosi has called the wall “an immorality” and refused to fund Trump’s signature campaign pledge.

By declaring a state of national emergency, the White House thinks it will be able to unlock money without congressional approval, although it has given no specific details of the move.

Adam Schiff, a Democratic leader on Capitol Hill, declared the idea “a non-starter”.

Speaking on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday, the California representative said: “If Harry Truman couldn’t nationalise the steel industry during wartime, this president doesn’t have the power to declare an emergency and build a multi-billion dollar wall on the border. So that’s a non-starter.”

The 1976 National Emergencies Act grants a president powers to take unilateral acts in times of crisis. But it also outlines congressional checks and with Democrats controlling the House, an attempt to make such a move would be fiercely and legally contested, potentially pitching the US into constitutional crisis.

Leaving the White House for Camp David on Sunday, Trump claimed that many of the 800,000 federal staff either working without pay or told to stay at home “agree 100% with what I’m doing”.

“I may decide a national emergency depending on what happens over the next few days,” he said, insisting: “I have tremendous support within the Republican party.”

Vice-president Mike Pence took part in talks on Sunday afternoon, although the meeting was due to include congressional aides rather than leaders and it is not clear that Pence has authority to offer any deal. Little progress was reported.

As he boarded Marine One, Trump cited human trafficking and claimed “there has never been a time when our country was so infested with so many different drugs”.

“Everybody’s playing games but I’ll tell you this, I think the Democrats want to make a deal,” he said. “This shutdown could end tomorrow or it also could go on for a long time.”

Trump said on Friday the shutdown could go on for years. The president’s language over the nature of the wall also continues to shift.

“The barrier or the wall can be of steel instead of concrete if that works better,” he said. “I intend to call the head of United States Steel and a couple of other steel companies to have them come up with a plate or a design … we’ll use that as our barrier.”

He claimed the wall “will pay for itself many times”.

His disregard for the hardship of unpaid workers was brushed aside on his return to the White House, as he said: “They will make an adjustment because they want to see the border taken care of.”

On Fox News Sunday, asked if an emergency order was really viable, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said: “Whatever action he takes will certainly be lawful and we’re looking at every option we can. This is something the president takes incredibly seriously, is very passionate about, and is not going to stop until he figures out the best way to make sure we’re doing everything we can to make America safer and more secure.”

On CNN’s State of the Union, Mick Mulvaney, acting White House chief of staff since 1 January, said he was “heavily involved” in talking to all government departments “to try to find money we can legally use to defend the southern border”.

Mulvaney also sought to present Trump’s shift to steel for his wall, from concrete, as a significant concession.

“It came up the other day,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press, “in the private meeting with the ‘big eight’, as they’re called, the leaders of the House, the Senate, the Republicans, the Democrats. It was that he was willing to agree … to take a concrete wall off the table.”

That meeting went nowhere, though, and however the White House describes Trump’s demand, Democratic opposition is unlikely to weaken. The House this week oversaw the passage of two funding bills without wall money. Public polling shows majorities against a wall.

By any measure, Trump’s fixation with a wall has boxed him into a corner. The New York Times reported on Saturday that it all began in 2014, when advisers needed a way to make the undisciplined speaker remember key promises.

“How do we get him to continue to talk about immigration?” Sam Nunberg, one such adviser, told the Times he asked another, Roger Stone. “We’re going to get him to talk about he’s going to build a wall.”

Trump duly did, promising Mexico would pay for it, another vow now seemingly dropped although the president claims a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada will provide savings that will pay for the wall. Factcheckers dispute that.

Trump is aware of his predicament: as long ago as January 2017, a leaked transcript of a call with the Mexican president showed him saying he was in a “political bind, because I have to have Mexico pay for the wall – I have to. I’ve been talking about it for a two-year period.”

On NBC on Sunday, Mulvaney said of the switch to steel: “What’s driving this is the president’s desire to change the conditions at the border. And if he has to give up a concrete wall and replace it with a steel fence in order to do that, so that Democrats can say, ‘See, he’s not building a wall anymore,’ that should help us move forward.”

But Trump has relentlessly demanded a wall, tweeting the word repeatedly, on Saturday as part of an attempted Game of Thrones meme over a picture of a fence. Mulvaney’s NBC interview took a similar turn towards the bizarre when, asked if the president no longer wanted a wall but wanted a fence, he said: “The president is going to secure the border with a barrier …

“I think he said [on Friday] he was going to secure the border with a 30ft-high barrier. I think he actually tweeted a picture out of it two weeks ago. We told the Democrats about it two weeks ago: ‘This is what we want to build. Do you think this is a wall?’

“Actually, under the way the law is written right now, technically it’s not a wall. If that’s not evidence of the president’s desire to try and resolve this, I don’t know what is.”

While such talk continued, around 800,000 Americans remained without pay. Key services including E-Verify, which allows employers to check the immigration status of employees, are either down or, like food stamps that help 38 million people, facing cuts.

Courts and airports are feeling the strain, national parks are short-staffed, museums and galleries are closed. It was however reported that one federal attraction was still manned: the clock tower at the building which houses Trump’s Washington hotel.


David Taylor and Martin Pengelly in New York

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Pelosi rejects Trump shutdown deal before president announces it
President offers temporary concessions and demands border wall but little chance of progress as House speaker says no

Sabrina Siddiqui in Washington and Martin Pengelly in New York

19, Jan, 2019 @11:00 PM

Article image
Trump claims plan to end longest government shutdown in history
Trump softens threat to declare emergency but wall standoff hits workers’ pay and key services

Martin Pengelly and Jamiles Lartey in New York

12, Jan, 2019 @5:02 PM

Article image
Trump refuses to budge on border wall demand as shutdown continues
Trump tweet blaming Democrats stokes controversy amidst lack of movement on demand for border wall funding

Tom McCarthy and Martin Pengelly

30, Dec, 2018 @10:23 PM

Article image
Senate set to reject Trump national emergency declaration – but not his veto
Rand Paul adds to Republican defections in upper chamber while House member Justin Amash says president is ‘violating constitutional system’

Guardian staff and agencies

03, Mar, 2019 @8:37 PM

Article image
Shutdown: Trump 'amnesty' hint angers right and fails to draw Democrats
President defends offer of temporary reprieve for Dreamers and others rejected by Pelosi before speech

Jon Swaine in New York

20, Jan, 2019 @9:18 PM

Article image
Trump walks out on Democrats and calls shutdown talks 'a waste of time'
Chuck Schumer condemns president’s ‘temper-tantrum’ as shutdown drags on and 800,000 federal US workers continue to go without pay

Sabrina Siddiqui and Lauren Gambino in Washington

09, Jan, 2019 @9:12 PM

Article image
Trump tweets 'not much headway' on shutdown as key services threatened
Mike Pence and Jared Kushner to hold more talks with congressional staff on Sunday as potentially devastating effects of shutdown come into focus

Martin Pengelly in New York and Lois Beckett in Oakland

05, Jan, 2019 @10:23 PM

Article image
Trump threatens to declare national emergency to get wall funding – as it happened
President says ‘we can call it a national emergency’ to bypass Congress and build wall ‘quickly’ at press conference

Sabrina Siddiqui (now) and Jamiles Lartey (earlier)

04, Jan, 2019 @10:18 PM

Article image
Trump blames Democrats for deaths of children as shutdown grinds on
President says deaths at border are result of ‘pathetic’ policies while government functions begin to cease on eighth day of budget standoff

Martin Pengelly and agencies

29, Dec, 2018 @8:41 PM

Article image
Trump tours border after repeating threat to call national emergency
President visits Texas on shutdown’s 20th day as rift with Democrats expands

Ed Pilkington in New York and agencies

11, Jan, 2019 @3:01 AM