“I’ve set the table. I’ve set the stage for doing what I’m going to do,” Trump said, without specifically confirming that he plans to declare a national emergency and reprogram money already offered by Congress for other purposes.
Such a step, or some other executive action, would set off a constitutional showdown and a certain legal challenge over whether the President would be claiming power he does not have to usurp Congress’s prerogative to appropriate funds.
Trump’s warning came amid few signs of progress from the Capitol Hill talks and after he lashed out at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, accusing her of “playing games” because of her refusal to fund a wall he always said Mexico would pay for.
“If there’s no wall, it doesn’t work,” Trump said before a group of reporters in the Oval Office earlier on Thursday, accusing Pelosi of “playing games” over her refusal to fund his wall — the most tangible promise of his 2016 White House campaign.
“On February 15, the committee will come back and if they don’t have a wall, I don’t even want to waste my time reading what they have because it’s a waste of time,” Trump said
Pelosi has been playing tough, but at one point seemed to offer Trump a semantic way out of the impasse, during her time in front of reporters on Thursday.
“There’s not going to be any wall money in the legislation,” Pelosi said, while adding that she could support a solution to the showdown that added some Normandy fencing — large ‘X’ shaped barriers — on the border.
“If the President wants to call that a wall, he can call it a wall,” Pelosi said.
Flexibility with language and creative drafting of legislation is a time honored way to ease congressional disputes in a way that gives both sides a credible argument that they got a win. It’s not hard to see how such an approach could offer a face saving way out of the current showdown.
If Trump were to agree to consider funding for the refurbishment of existing sections of border wall instead of financing for new stretches, there could be wiggle room that congressional negotiators could work with.
One tweet by Trump on Thursday appeared to offer hope for such an outcome.
“Large sections of WALL have already been built with much more either under construction or ready to go. Renovation of existing WALLS is also a very big part of the plan to finally, after many decades, properly Secure Our Border. The Wall is getting done one way or the other!” he tweeted.
But another missive seemed to send the opposite message.
“Let’s just call them WALLS from now on and stop playing political games! A WALL is a WALL!” he added.
Trump’s interview with the Times appeared to drive another nail into optimism that a creative linguistic way could be charted out of the confrontation.
Keeping the base happy
The evidence of the shutdown, which ended when Trump folded his cards a week ago, suggests that building a wall would be a political loser for the President.
Polls show that a majority of Americans oppose the wall, and that most people were also against the shutdown engineered in order to try to force Democrats to finance it. And Trump’s hardline rhetoric on immigration is also blamed by some Republicans for contributing to the loss of seats in more moderate, suburban districts that helped hand Democrats the House in the midterm elections.
But as always, the President is more concerned with shoring up his political base than the wider electorate.
The power of the wall as an image to Trump’s supporters may be one reason why the President keeps saying — as he did on Thursday — that he is already building though there is no evidence that is the case.
But Trump cannot take the chance of embarking on his 2020 re-election campaign without fulfilling his promises on immigration to his most devoted core supporters.
“It’s not an issue for him in 2020 so long as the base of the Republican Party believes he’s committed to border security,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican political strategist.
“You have to understand on this issue, regardless of how hyper-partisan and far apart the parties are, the bottom line is that they believe he is the last best hope to get illegal immigration under control,” said O’Connell, who is also an adjunct professor at the George Washington Graduate School of Political Management.
This equation is the reason that the best political solution for the President may be to go ahead with a declaration of national emergency or some other executive action to reposition government money to build the wall.
Trump candidly explained on Thursday just why the wall is seen by many political observers as an almost existential issue for him.
“I was elected partially on this issue, not as much as people say, but partially on this issue. This is a very important issue,” Trump said.
Even so, using executive power could bring its own share of practical problems.
A long court battle could slow Trump’s plan to get moving quickly on wall construction. Another problem with such an approach is that there are limited pots of money to devote to wall funding that fall well short of the multi-billion dollar price tag for the project.
But since the wall impasse is a political problem for Trump far more than a practical one, taking executive action may actually be a preferable course of action.
It would also free him of the necessity to offer Democrats something that is important to them to try to get them to budge on the wall. Any offer for instance of permanent protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children would invoke calls of “amnesty” from conservative commentators who have been shown to have a huge influence on Trump.
“The national emergency solves a problem with respect to his base all being in lock step,” said O’Connell.
Democrats make broad offer
Democrats unveiled their opening offer in the talks on Wednesday. It includes funding for 1,000 customs officers, money to repair ports of entry on the border, cash for new technology and equipment and imaging tools at ports of entry. But it contains no money for the wall. It doesn’t even include cash for fencing or repairs to existing fencing.
The importance of the wall as a political symbol for both sides is also effectively short circuiting congressional mechanisms that normally end such showdowns.
Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt laid out how things should work.
“Doing our job, means by definition, nobody gets everything they want,” Blunt said on Wednesday. “We’ve got to be sure that we are looking at that as and end result. We’ve got to figure out how to make this work. I think we can.”
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin also maintained that the conference committee could produce an outcome that both sides could accept, though Trump looms large.
“The President may be disappointed if we don’t give him everything he’s asked for, but if this appropriations committee did that, it would be a first in history.” Durbin said.