Trump Questions Legal Binds on His Spending in Signing Statement

  • Not bound by bar against interfering in state laws, he says
  • Congressional Black Caucus slams president on college funding

Trump Threatens Shutdown After Reaching Budget Deal

President Donald Trump, signing a measure on Friday to keep the federal government funded for the rest of the fiscal year, argued in a lengthy statement that he isn’t legally bound by a series of limits lawmakers imposed on him in the bill.

The “signing statement,” which reprised a contentious tactic former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama used while in office, included language on issues from the use of medical marijuana to funding for historically black colleges and universities.

Trump also suggested he may ignore congressional requirements for advance notice before taking a range of foreign policy and military actions.

The president said his constitutional prerogatives supersede the restrictions Congress placed on him as a condition for funding government operations -- a comment that raised eyebrows about the lengths to which the White House may be going to consolidate power.

Steve Bell, a senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, said Trump’s signing statement signaled a desire to usurp power from the legislative branch.

“It is the constitutional prerogative of the Congress to spend money and to put limitations on spending,” Bell, a former staff director of the Senate Budget Committee and an aide to former Republican Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico, said by phone. “This is an extremely broad assertion of executive branch power over the purse.”

Marijuana, Colleges

Trump signaled he may ignore a congressional ban on interfering with state medical marijuana laws.

He also said he would treat a program that helps historically black colleges get low-cost construction loans, “in a manner consistent with the requirement to afford equal protection of the law” under the U.S. Constitution.

The comment was interpreted to mean he may defund the decades-old program, and drew a rebuke from members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Jeff Sessions addresses law enforcement members on March 31.

Photographer: Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

“Trump signaled that he may not implement construction funding for historically black colleges and universities due to supposed constitutional concerns,” Representatives John Conyers of Michigan and Cedric Richmond of Louisiana said in a statement on Saturday.

“Trump’s statement is not only misinformed factually, it is not grounded in any serious constitutional analysis,” they said.

The United Negro College Fund said it had received “informal assurance” from the White House that there had been no policy change but urged an official clarification of the statement.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has vowed to crack down on marijuana in various forms, and has dismissed arguments for its medical use as “desperate.”

“I reject the idea that we’re going to be better placed if we have more marijuana,” Sessions said in a speech to law-enforcement officials in March. “It’s not a healthy substance, particularly for young people.”

Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico now allow for medical marijuana use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Trump singled out a provision in the spending bill that says funds cannot be used to block states from implementing medical marijuana laws. “I will treat this provision consistently with my constitutional responsibility to take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” he said.

Making a Statement

Obama also occasionally released signing statements objecting to congressional restrictions on his authority. The White House described Trump’s signing statement as routine, but didn’t indicate whether the president planned to take action to defy Congressional restrictions.

Bell said Trump’s stance on the medical marijuana provision in the bill was at odds with the 10th Amendment, which protects states from federal overreach.

Tim Shaw, a senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said that the president is bound by the language in the spending bill that now bears his signature.

“Part of the argument here in this signing statement is that he has the constitutional requirement to execute the law,” Shaw said in an interview. “But this is one of those laws, and Congress has the ultimate authority over funds getting spent.’’

— With assistance by Margaret Talev

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