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Lindsay Koshgarian argues that the government shutdown could very well lead to Trump calling a national emergency, which would be dangerous to freedom while also causing economic downturn

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MARC STEINER: You’re watching The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. It’s great to have you with us.

We are now in the midst of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. While all the others, like the one lasting 21 days, when Clinton and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich went at it and squared off for 21 days, and Jimmy Carter’s 18-day shutdown so he could say no to political pork, then the next-longest one under Obama to save the Affordable Care Act, while they they’ve all been really politically contentious, this one has onerous overtones. Trump, leading up to all this, has called out the Army to the border with Mexico. Thousands of children have been separated from their families. For this particular shutdown, furloughed employees have their financial backs against the wall. And Indigenous people, their lives and livelihoods are under threat in this country.

When Trump threatened to call a national emergency to build his wall between us and Mexico, that most Americans do not support, it set off alarm bells across the political spectrum. Even conservatives became wary of his next moves. Progressives, and libertarians, too, saw this as a threat to our very democracy. So what could be the political consequence of all of this? What are the dangers that lurk ahead and beneath us, and what should our response be?

We are joined by Lindsay Koshgarian, who is program director for the National Priorities Project with the Institute for Policy Studies, who wrote an article in Truthout entitled Will the Longest Shutdown in U.S. History End in a Power Grab? Lindsay, welcome back. Great to have you with us here on The Real News.

LINDSAY KOSHGARIAN: Good to be here.

MARC STEINER: Always good to talk to you, really. So let me begin by playing these two clips. The first clip here is a clip of Trump talking about why he all of a sudden doesn’t think that we should have a national emergency, but hedges some. Let’s hear.

DONALD TRUMP: I’m not looking to call a national emergency. This is so simple you shouldn’t have to. Now, I have the absolute legal right to call it, but I’m not looking to do that, because this is too simple. The Democrats should say we want border security. We have to build a wall, otherwise you can’t have border security. And we should get on with our lives.

MARC STEINER: He has every right to call a national emergency, he says, which is one of the things that prompted, I’m sure, Lindsay, for you to write the article you wrote. And all of us just hold our breath, what is he saying?

But then, just more recently, I think it was on the 11th, he said this to backtrack a little.

REPORTER: Mr. President, what is your current thinking on a national emergency? Why didn’t you announce it last night, and when might you announce it?

DONALD TRUMP: Because I think we might work a deal, and if we don’t, I may go that route. I have the absolute right to do national emergency if I want.

REPORTER: What’s your threshold for when you might make [crosstalk]

DONALD TRUMP: My threshold will be if I can’t make a deal with people that are reasonable.

MARC STEINER: So some people had a sigh of relief. Lindsay, I don’t think this gives us much pause for a sigh of relief, because he’s leaving a lot of room open to come back to a national emergency. And you kind of clearly outlined in a piece you wrote what the dangers are that’s ahead of us if this should happen.

LINDSAY KOSHGARIAN: Right. True to form, this president always flips back and forth. So no, I agree, we can’t take him at his word that he’s not declaring a national emergency. All we can do is wait and see whether he reaches a point where, for some reason, he decides to declare one.

What’s unprecedented about this is not a national emergency. There are lots of national emergencies. Presidents declare them all the time. But this would be a really unprecedented use of a national emergency. Usually they’re things to do with foreign policy, sanctions on other countries, things about suspected terrorists. Of course, Trump is saying that this is about suspected terrorists. But what it’s really about is this humanitarian crisis that he is creating at the border, and he’s politically backed himself into a corner, and that’s where the national emergency may come in.

MARC STEINER: The thing that I think some people fear, really, here with all of this, is something you just alluded to. I think that his back is against the wall. There have been all kinds of reports from inside the White House–whether they were verified or not completely, you don’t know–where he was saying, “We’re being crushed,” and the rest. He’s a very volatile character. And we don’t know what he may say or do next. And if he was to call a national emergency to say we have to build this wall, and as, I think, he put it, taking money away from other relief projects, that we can talk about here, as well. I mean, what’s the political danger here? What do you see, as somebody who watches this carefully?

LINDSAY KOSHGARIAN: Well, one thing is the precedent, right? I mean, if you’ve been on Twitter and you’ve seen, sort of, jokes about the precedent, and you know, if this president declares a national emergency to build a wall, what’s to stop the next Democrat from declaring a national emergency to, say, address climate change? Democrats see that as maybe a desirable thing, and Republicans–you know, Senator Marco Rubio brought it up as kind of a horror story; oh my God, what if this happened.

And the truth is that it would be a really disturbing precedent, because regardlesss of what this president does and the next president does, national emergencies are a really powerful tool that presidents have. And they could even use them to do things like freeze Americans’ bank accounts, or shut down electronic communications. So this is really playing with fire, and a different level of authoritarianism than anything that we’ve seen from this president so far.

MARC STEINER: This the question I think is really important ask here, what you’ve just said. How real a danger do you think what you just posited is that we face?

LINDSAY KOSHGARIAN: I think we don’t know as much about that as we, as we wish we did. You know, I mean, it may seem like it’s a long distance from building a wall to shutting down electronic communications, but those things can happen piecemeal. And what’s part of the danger is that if the president declares a national emergency, there will be a lawsuit. No question about it. Possibly multiple lawsuits. And as those lawsuits work their way through the courts they are going to set precedent, as well, that future courts will be bound by. So how this all goes down right now could set precedents for American history for decades or more. And who’s to say what kind of leader we’re going to have? I don’t think–you know, a few years ago not many of us saw this one coming down the pike.

MARC STEINER: You know, one of the things I want to posit here to you that I’ve sometimes been wrestling with a bit is that we have a situation where you have this really, for want of a better term at the moment, white, very racist, nationalist grouping in the White House controlling a lot of the politics of this nation. With their allies, some of their allies in Congress, and 25, 35 percent of the American population that really likes what they see every day in Trump. On the other side, if he declared a national emergency–I want to set up a little, kind of, sci-fi scenario for a moment, here. So if he did that, then you also see on the other side the FBI, the CIA, parts of our military leadership are now the saviors of the nation, who don’t like what Trump is doing.


MARC STEINER: This sets up a really very strange scenario for us.

LINDSAY KOSHGARIAN: Yes. It’s the strange alignment of progressives with the FBI and the CIA [crosstalk].

MARC STEINER: To say the least.

LINDSAY KOSHGARIAN: Right. Yeah, it’s true. And you brought up an important point, which is there’s this minority of Americans that support this. But we have polls that say that the vast majority of Americans support immigration and immigration, and think immigration is a good thing. The majority of Americans don’t want a wall built. The majority of Americans think that $5 billion would be way better spent on education, or healthcare, or infrastructure. And we’ve also seen, as this shutdown drags on longer and longer, the president’s poll numbers are starting to slide even lower than they have been. So it is a small minority against the vast majority, and it’s important to remember that.

MARC STEINER: I may have said it with a little bit of a chuckle, but I’m very worried, I think many people are, at this possible scenario being built up and what could actually happen with these two forces in America, none of which represent the kind of progressive future I think most Americans really want, and what that could do.

On the other hand, there’s also the economic pressures we’re seeing here. We’re seeing that most federal workers now have lost at least $5000 from from their wages, and that keeps growing. So the economic consequences of a shutdown are very serious.

LINDSAY KOSHGARIAN: Very serious, and they’re getting worse by the minute. You know, for one thing, the only solution to the shutdown is not a national emergency. The Senate can end this whenever they want to. Sen. Mitch McConnell has the answer in his hands, if he chooses to use it. But yes, the economic consequences are growing more serious. So far it’s, you know, coming down mostly on federal workers and contractors who are not getting paid, 800,000 people who are not getting paid. And more than half of them are being required to work while they’re not getting paid. Just to put that into context, 800,000 jobs is about the number that we were losing every month during the Great Recession.

It’s a huge economic effect. It’s not something to be taken lightly. And we’re seeing reports now that it may actually start to tank the economic growth the country’s been seeing for the last couple of years.

MARC STEINER: So how–playing that a little further, how do you see that playing out? I mean, you watch the economy all the time. What could be the consequences of this?

LINDSAY KOSHGARIAN: Well, I mean, there’s all this sort of investor confidence in things where there’s a lot, a big part of the market that’s psychological. And right now the country is in an extremely volatile state. That is not good for the economy, and we’re going to start to see that. And if people start to pull back from the economy the longer this goes on because they don’t know, it’s too unpredictable, what’s going to happen if people kind of aim to play in the economy.

I mean, the other thing that, you know, that hasn’t become terribly serious yet, although we’re starting to see some really bad things, is people who are on public assistance, people who rely on housing subsidies, people who are in public housing, people who rely on food stamps. All those people, all of these programs, are running out of dollars. And as this shutdown, if it stretches into February, and even into March, all those programs are running out of money, and people are really going to begin to suffer.

MARC STEINER: Yeah, just to finally close out here, I mean, I think that that’s one of the things we’re seeing. And I think the tip of the iceberg here is what we’re seeing is happening in Indian country, where people are just losing everything. I mean, the medical care system is falling apart. There are no jobs. People can’t get money to feed their children. Food is running out in the pantries. I mean, it’s becoming a crisis on a lot of reservations. And that could be emblematic on a larger scale of what could be happening in America if this is not taken care of soon.

LINDSAY KOSHGARIAN: That’s right. Indian country is very dependent on federal funds that they get because of treaties that were signed long ago with the federal government’s word that, in exchange for some of the horrific things that the federal government did to these people, that they get these funds. And they are absolutely suffering. They’re shut down. Most of their funds come from the Department of the Interior. That department is part of the shutdown. So for example, Indian Health Service now is not funded. About 60 percent of their employees who are currently still working without pay, they can try to provide healthcare. But there are 2.2 million people who get healthcare under that system, and it’s just not going to work. There are too many people, there too many needs that can’t be met.

MARC STEINER: Lindsay Kashgarian, I always enjoy talking with you, and keep up the work, and your writing, and all the research you’re doing, and being on the front lines for us here with this. And I look forward to talk to you again, hopefully not with a continued shutdown, because I do truly worry about our economy. I worry even more about the American people and what’s going to happen with all of this. Lindsay, thank you so much for your work, and thank you so much for joining us today here on The Real News.

LINDSAY KOSHGARIAN: And thanks for having me.

MARC STEINER: I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you for joining us. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.