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Coronavirus: What happens if Trump invokes Stafford Act and declares national emergency?

President opens FEMA funds to combat pandemic in US

Alex Woodward
New York
Friday 13 March 2020 22:18 GMT
Donald Trump declares national emergency over coronavirus pandemic

Donald Trump's declaration of a national emergency in response to the coronavirus pandemic has invoked the Stafford Act, which makes millions of dollars in federal funding available to state and local authorities as the US mobilises against the outbreak.

The creation of the Robert T Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act in 1988 enables the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to support local governments during national emergencies by tapping $40bn in federal funds set aside by Congress to provide that relief.

With his declaration on Friday, the president will rely on that aid to help communities set up mobile testing centres — including drive-through swab test clinics — and emergency operation centres in every state, as health workers across the US brace for potential strains on hospitals and other health systems. Mr Trump's emergency declaration could also be used to support more medical staff.

The law also allows states to request up to 75 per cent of the costs for testing, supplies and other medical expenses, including vaccinations, if and when they're available.

"Two very big words", the president said outside the White House on Friday as he officially declared a national emergency, following the urging of lawmakers and health officials across the US.

Roughly 500,000 testing kits testing kits could become available as early as next week, he said, though he warned that "we don't want everybody taking this test ... It's totally unnecessary."

Stafford has previously been invoked in a similar public health capacity by former president Bill Clinton to address the West Nile virus in New York and New Jersey in 2000.

It has been enacted roughly 60 times within the last two administration, notably as a delayed response to Hurricane Katrina, and in response to several terrorist attacks, including the 11 September attacks and Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.

In January, the Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency, though that declaration does not fall under the Stafford Act.

The agency's move allowed the White House to set up travel restrictions and other measures, including giving state and local health departments more flexibility to assign personnel to combat the virus.

Across the US, state and local governments have established their own states of emergencies, which activate certain funds and emergency procedures throughout their governments as they address the crisis. Those activations don't fall under Stafford; only the president has the authority to invoke the federal declaration.

Last year, the president activated a different kind of national emergency order to divert funding from the Department of Defense for the construction of a border wall on the US-Mexico border.

That move was activated under the National Emergencies Act, not the Stafford Act. That law provides for sweeping executive powers, including the ability to suspend certain laws including emergency definitions. Stafford, however, deals explicitly with FEMA.

Stafford does not give him overriding authority to delay elections, which would require Congressional intervention.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said "we've been calling for President Trump to do this for days ... Americans will support an emergency declaration to extend assistance to Americans who need it. But he must not overstep his authority or indulge his autocratic tendencies for purposes not truly related to this crisis."

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