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Presidential Power: Emergency Powers

National emergency explained

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  • National emergencies result from danger or a threat of danger to a nation from foreign or domestic sources. [Merriam-Webster]

  • The National Emergencies Act (NEA) provides the framework for a president to declare a national emergency when he or she deems it necessary. There is no specific definition of "national emergency." [The Washington Post], [Congressional Research Service]

  • A national emergency declaration is apart of a broader set of "emergency powers," first used by President George Washington in 1792. [USA Today]
  • A president must issue a signed declaration, typically an executive order, that outlines the specific emergency powers he plans to use. [The Washington Post]
  • The declaration of national emergency is a powerful executive power as it can unlock 136 statutory powers. [Brennan Center for Justice
  • Many of the legal limitations placed on the president are virtually removed during a declared national emergency. [The Atlantic]
  • Congress cannot stop the president from declaring an emergency, but can pass a "joint resolution of termination." [The Washington Post]
  • National emergencies must be renewed yearly to remain in effect. [The Los Angeles Times]



CIVICS: The National Emergencies Act allows the president to declare a national emergency under almost any circumstance.


SOCIAL: Such broad powers granted to presidents is worrying to some, as the declaration can rely only on the judgment of a single person. There needs to be a rapid process of consensus building before a national emergency is declared.



President Jimmy Carter

November 14, 1979: Blocking Iranian Government Property [U.S. Department of the Treasury]


Declared immediately after the Iran Hostage Crisis began, in which 50 Americans were held hostage for 444 days. [U.S. State Department]



President George W. Bush

September 14, 2001: The Bush administration issued the Declaration of National Emergency by Reason of Certain Terrorist Attacks. [The White House]


Declared after 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed 2,996 people and injured 6,000. [The Washington Post]



President Barack Obama

Oct. 2009: National emergency for H1N1 Swine Flu. [The New York Times]


The disease was widespread in 46 states and the declaration allowed hospitals to more easily treat patients. [Reuters]



President Donald Trump

February 15, 2019: National emergency declared on the U.S. Mexico border. [Reuters]


Declaration was used to unlock $6.6 billion to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. [NPR]


Presidential powers

Declaration of national emergency unlocks 136 powers that are now available to the president. [Brennan Center for Justice]


During a national emergency, a president can:

  • freeze U.S. bank accounts.

  • seize private property.

  • shut down electronic communication systems.

  • kill or indefinitely detain enemy soldiers.

  • declare martial law.

  • suspend habeas corpus.

  • suspend laws that prohibit the testing of biological and chemical agents on humans.

  • restrict travel.

  • possibly seize control of the internet.[TIME], [The Atlantic]


Constant emergency

Since the first national emergency declaration in 1976, 60 national emergencies have been declared. [Brennan Center for Justice]


31 of those emergencies are still in effect.  See them all here.



See you in court

Anyone directly affected by the declaration can challenge or sue the government. [The Washington Post]


  • Feb. 2019: President Trump declared a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border. [The New York Times] The Trump administration will now have to seize land from Americans in order to build a wall along the southern border. [Vox]

  • California Attorney General has filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration over the national emergency declaration. 15 states have followed suit, using the president's words that he "didn't have to do this" indicating no crisis. [NPR]

  • Mar. 2020: State governors are declaring national emergencies to help deploy resources to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. [The Verge]

  • Mar. 2020: President Trump declared a national emergency to help fight COVID-19. This declaration provides $50 billion in additional funding. [The Wall Street Journal]


  • Read A Guide to Emergency Powers and Their Use from the Brennan Center for Justice.

  • See all national emergencies here.

  • Is this presidential power usurping the checks and balances set by the Founding Fathers? Read an opinion here

  • Read an opinion on why the National Emergencies Act was never meant for Trump’s border wall.


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This article is aligned with Purple for Democracy, a movement to support democracy through non-partisan, non-political content. 


Learn more about the Purple movement here


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