Dana Milbank: Trump’s emergency declaration showed why some people think him incapacitated

President Donald Trump speaks during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House to declare a national emergency in order to build a wall along the southern border, Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Washington - It was a fine day for a national emergency.

There was no sign of alarm as administration officials and journalists assembled Friday in the Rose Garden under a perfect blue sky amid unseasonable warmth. Nor was there any sense of crisis conveyed by President Trump, scheduled to fly to his Mar-a-Lago resort later Friday. The much-anticipated emergency declaration was to have been at 10 a.m. At 10:18 an official said Trump would talk in two minutes. At 10:39, Trump emerged.

His topic demanded utmost solemnity: The situation on the border is so dire, such a crisis, that he must invoke emergency powers to circumvent Congress, testing the boundary between constitutional democracy and autocracy. But with the nation watching, Trump instead delivered a bizarre, 47-minute variant of his campaign speech.

He boasted about the economy, military spending and the stock markets ("we have all the records") and he applauded the Chinese president's pledge to execute people who deal fentanyl ("one of the things I'm most excited about in our trade deal"). He said Japan's prime minister had nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. He declared Ann Coulter "off the reservation" but praised his favorite Fox News hosts and celebrated Rush Limbaugh's endurance ("try speaking for three hours without taking calls").

Further, Trump reported about on his "great relationship" with the dictator of North Korea (which, Trump reported, is found "right smack in the middle" of South Korea, China and Russia) and he declared the "eradication of the caliphate" in Syria (his top general in the region begs to differ). He introduced his new attorney general, disparaged the Democrats' "con game," criticized retired House Speaker Paul Ryan, invoked campaign promises, recited the "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan and pronounced his re-election prospects excellent. He pinged from regulations to Britain to MS-13 to "monstrous caravans" to an apocryphal story about women gagged with duct tape.

Oh, and he also mentioned his emergency declaration -- specifically, that it isn't necessary. "I didn't need to do this," he said in response to a question from NBC's Peter Alexander. It's just that the emergency declaration lets him build a border wall "faster." He acknowledged that "I don't know what to do with all the money" Congress gave him for border security.

Somewhere, administration lawyers were face-palming.

On Thursday came reports that former FBI Director Andrew McCabe had confirmed that Justice Department officials discussed the possibility of removing Trump under the 25th Amendment for incapacity. The president then spent the next 30 hours showing exactly why some people think him incapacitated.

As The Washington Post reported, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke on the phone with Trump at least three times Thursday, trying to get Trump to agree to the bipartisan border agreement and avoid another shutdown. When Trump finally agreed -- apparently in exchange for McConnell dropping his opposition to an emergency order -- McConnell rushed to the Senate floor to announce it before Trump changed his mind, interrupting an irate Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

Earlier, Grassley had offered the Senate his own benediction to supplement the Senate chaplain's: "Let's all pray that the president will have wisdom to sign the bill."

Prayers and frantic reassurance: This is how Republicans deal with an erratic president determined to defy an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress, take money from the military (the Pentagon's uses for it "didn't sound too important to me," Trump said) and set a precedent for future presidents to declare emergencies for their pet projects.

When President Obama attempted a less aggressive use of executive power in 2014, Republicans denounced him as a "tyrant" and "dictator," McConnell called him an "imperial president" and Trump himself said Obama "could be impeached" for it. Many lawmakers warned Trump not to "usurp the separation of powers" as Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, put it.

Trump seemed not to have heard such warnings as he ricocheted from topic to topic in the Rose Garden. He carried a speech to the lectern but mostly ignored it as he spun fantasies.

Evidence that most of the illegal drugs pass through legal border crossings? "It's all a lie."

CNN's Jim Acosta pointed out that border crossings are near record lows and illegal immigrants are not disproportionately criminal.

"You're fake news," Trump replied.

Playboy's Brian Karem asked Trump to "clarify where you get your numbers."

"Sit down," Trump told him, declaring that "I use many stats." Minutes later, he pumped a fist in the air and departed.

"What about the 25th Amendment?" Acosta called after him.

Trump's performance had already provided a compelling answer.

Dana Milbank | The Washington Post

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.