Politics & Government

PolitiFact puts Thom Tillis’ emergency declaration vote on the Flip-O-Meter

Sen. Thom Tillis recently made news for doing something especially taboo in politics: He changed his mind.

On March 14, Tillis voted to support President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration to circumvent Congress and fund a wall on the southern border.

Tillis’ vote received attention across the country, because it came less than a month after he wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post that criticized Trump’s decision.

On Feb. 25, the Post published Tillis’ letter: “I support Trump’s vision on border security. But I would vote against the emergency.”

Afterward, people accused Tillis of flip-flopping.

Screen grab of a fundraising email sent by the North Carolia Democratic Party on March 15, 2019.

A Washington Post reporter called Tillis’ vote a “remarkable flip-flop.” WRAL’s editorial staff referred to it as a “flip-flop for the ages.” The Fayetteville Observer’s editorial writers said it was an “Olympic gold flip-flop.” In a fundraising email, the North Carolina Democratic Party said Tillis “says one thing, then does another.”

Is it fair to describe Tillis’ vote as a flip-flop? Let’s see how Tillis’ statement before the vote compares with what he said after the vote.

Before the vote

Tillis said if he were in Trump’s shoes as president, he might also declare an emergency.

“But I am not. I am a member of the Senate, and I have grave concerns when our institution looks the other way at the expense of weakening Congress’s power,” he wrote in the Feb. 25 letter.

Screen grab of the op-ed authored by Sen. Thom Tillis and published by The Washington Post on Feb. 25, 2019.

Tillis foreshadowed the backlash he might receive from conservatives.

“Those on the left and the right who are making Trump’s emergency declaration a simple political litmus test of whether one supports or opposes the president and his policies are missing the mark,” Tillis wrote.

His prediction was right. Republicans in some North Carolina counties openly expressed disappointment in Tillis, and some said they welcomed a primary challenger.

After the vote

In a press release after the vote on March 14, Tillis said his concerns were “never about what President Trump is trying to accomplish but rather with setting a precedent that a future Democratic president would exploit to bypass Congress to implement policies well outside the mainstream.”

Screen grab of a press release issued by Sen. Thom Tillis on March 14, 2019.

He offered an explanation of his change of heart on the Senate floor.

“My main concern with this executive action is future potential abuses. I have a concern with the executive action that the president took, the emergency order. That’s why I voiced it,” Tillis said, adding: “But I’m sympathetic to what he was trying to do … and I thought we could view this as an opportunity to where maybe we could have a discussion about the National Emergencies Act and potentially make a real difference here.”

This statement gives the impression that Tillis wasn’t very critical of Trump and that his goal all along was to reform the National Emergencies Act, which grants presidents special powers during national crises.

Tillis noted that he spoke with the White House, which he said agreed to help reform the National Emergencies Act. Tillis is a co-sponsor of the Article One Act, introduced two days before his vote. (Article One is the part of the Constitution that created Congress)

The bill would automatically end future emergency declarations after 30 days unless Congress voted to extend the emergency. Bill sponsors noted that, under current laws, Congress can cancel an emergency declaration only by passing a resolution that can withstand a presidential veto.

“That this president is prepared to transfer power back to the Article 1 branch by his statements either publicly or through his administration is extraordinary,” Tillis said.

His op-ed did allude to future presidents.

“As a U.S. senator, I cannot justify providing the executive with more ways to bypass Congress,” Tillis wrote. “As a conservative, I cannot endorse a precedent that I know future left-wing presidents will exploit to advance radical policies that will erode economic and individual freedoms.”

Misleading explanation

However, Tillis’ op-ed didn’t mention the National Emergencies Act. And he was critical of this particular emergency declaration -- not just those that might happen in the future. Let’s look back at the op-ed.

“Although Trump certainly has legitimate grievances over congressional Democrats’ obstruction of border-security funding, his national emergency declaration on Feb. 15 was not the right answer,” Tillis wrote.

This particular line of the op-ed stands out:

“There is no intellectual honesty in now turning around and arguing that there’s an imaginary asterisk attached to executive overreach — that it’s acceptable for my party but not thy party,” Tillis wrote.

PolitiFact ruling

In an op-ed, Tillis said he opposed Trump’s emergency declaration and then, less than a month later, voted to support it. This a major reversal of his position, which is the definition of a Full Flop on our Flip-O-Meter.

This story was produced by the North Carolina Fact-Checking Project, a partnership of McClatchy Carolinas, the Duke University Reporters’ Lab and PolitiFact. The NC Local News Lab Fund and the International Center for Journalists provide support for the project, which shares fact-checks with newsrooms statewide. To offer ideas for fact checks, email factcheck@newsobserver.com.

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Thom Tillis
U.S. Senator (R-NC)

Position on Trump’s national emergency declaration for border wall funding
Paul “Andy” Specht reports on North Carolina leaders and state politics for The News & Observer and PolitiFact. Specht previously covered Raleigh City Hall and town governments around the Triangle. He’s a Raleigh native who graduated from Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C. Contact him at aspecht@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4870.
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