WASHINGTON -- An attorney for the House urged a federal judge in California on Friday to block the Trump administration from moving federal funds around to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, calling the move "statutory sleight of hand, or, more accurately, three-card monte."
Douglas N. Letter, the House general counsel, told U.S. District Court Judge Haywood S. Gilliam Jr. that the government can't claim the authority to divert billions of dollars for wall construction when Congress had just denied President Donald Trump's demands to appropriate those funds.
"As I think everybody in this courtroom knows, the executive branch can't build this wall without Congress," Letter said.
The federal court hearing Friday was the first about whether a federal court should temporarily stop the Trump administration plan to spend up to $8.1 billion for construction of southern border barriers under three separate laws. Trump made the move in February after he asked Congress for $5 billion for a border wall and Congress instead appropriated $1.375 billion.
Letter argued Friday as a "friend of the court" in two lawsuits in California to stop the wall construction, one brought by a coalition of 20 states and another brought by an environmental group. Gilliam appeared ready to make a decision quickly.
The House has filed its own lawsuit in Washington, a more direct separation-of-powers showdown over control of government spending. Friday's arguments in California were a preview of sorts for a May 23 hearing on the lawmakers' request for a preliminary injunction.
Letter argued Friday that the court needed to step in and stop the construction because the House would be irreparably harmed. The funds couldn't be returned after contractors were paid, and he said the administration's budget request for more funds to compensate for the border wall spending "makes absolutely clear this money's not coming back."
Letter pointed to the high-profile government shutdown over the sole issue of the border wall funding to show how clearly Congress didn't want to allocate money for it.
"This money was clearly denied by Congress under immense pressure," Letter said of the government shutdown and media coverage of the debate. "This wasn't something that was just knocked dead in the middle of the night or something."
Trump then decided Congress is "just a nuisance," Letter said, and the president needed to build the wall and would fund it on his own, "and that is unconstitutional."