[This is derived from the discussion on today’s “To the Point” with Warren Olney.]
President Trump picked a fight by trying to get explicit funding for his border wall in the current shutdown spending-bill negotiations with Congress. Now he’s backed off his demand. There seem to be at least three possible explanations for this behavior:
1) Naivete: In this theory, Trump actually thought he could force Democrats to cough up the money, in part by dangling the prospect of Obamacare subsidies (now hung up in the courts). Maybe Trump wanted a big achievement for his first 100 days. Maybe he was worried his base could bail on him. Why naive: This was a very unfavorable circumstance in which to try to fund The Wall. Democrats are desperate for an issue that can unite them against Trump (while appealing to their base). Righteously opposing the Wall fits the bill. If they held out (as they have) Republicans would get blamed for any resulting shutdown — as they’ve been every time it’s happened, ever since Bill Clinton bested Newt Gingrich in 1996. The MSM would certainly blame Trump. Policy arguments for the wall would be inevitably mixed up with, and obscured by, extraneous arguments over the shutdown.
2) Mildly cynical: Trump knew he’d have to cave this round, but figured the base would give him an “‘A’ for effort.” Problem: Why pick a fight only to retreat? The base is going to like that? Trump’s supposed to be the strong one. Plus, even if he says he’ll seek funding later, the Trump-hostile press will now instinctively portray it as another defeat — ‘after his failed attempt to repeal Obamacare,’ etc.. You know the drill.
3) Super cynical: Trump knew he’d have to cave but actually wanted to use the defeat to wriggle out of his border wall promise entirely, redefining “wall” down to mean merely “border security” — e.g., drones, sensors better flashlights for the border patrol, whatever. (Anything but a wall!) Certainly the usual-suspect GOP proponents of amnesty and less-restricted immigration –like Senators Tillis and Graham — have jumped at this opportunity. Here’s Graham:
“I think [the wall] has become symbolic for better border security. So it’s a code word for better border security.”
Nice try. Problem: Even if Trump intended to redefine “wall,” he publicly abandoned the idea in a tweet this morning:
Don’t let the fake media tell you that I have changed my position on the WALL. It will get built and help stop drugs, human trafficking etc.
Which? I tend to buy #1 — they misread their leverage — maybe with a bit of #3 in the mix from traditionally anti-restrictionist players like Ryan and Priebus. Troubling! But make your own call.
The crazy part is, Trump doesn’t need explicit funding from Congress now to start his Wall project. He already has plenty of statutory authority and surely could cobble together start-up funds within the Department of Homeland Security. Eventually he needs some Congressional approval, but not right now. The skirmish seems to be a self-inflicted loss. But not one that prevents Trump from building the wall. And, as David Drucker points out, he caved quickly enough to avoid major damage. [Update: Maybe not. The base has noticed. Drucker’s now alluding to longer term consequences. ]