Why Didn’t Trump Just Take the Border Wall Deal?

The president wants to satisfy his base, but he wouldn’t take yes for an answer.

President Donald Trump is shown border wall prototypes
President Donald Trump is shown border wall prototypes in San Diego on March 13. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

On Saturday night, Ann Coulter, furious over President Donald Trump’s inability to build a massive wall along our Southern border, offered an idea to Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro, one of Trump’s favorite television hosts. “It’s his authority under the Constitution that cannot be taken away from him by any legislature, by any court … to defend our borders,” Coulter said. “I think it can be done right on our border as part of the defense.”

In other words, Coulter was suggesting that Trump use the surge of military funding included in last week’s omnibus bill to construct the wall. “Have the Seabees do it,” Coulter said.

Early the following morning, Trump, who has been known to watch Fox on DVR, tweeted that “because our Military is again rich,” the government should “build WALL through M!” As the Washington Post reported, in one of the more delightfully dry sentences of late, “Two advisers said ‘M’ stood for ‘military.’ ”

There are many reasons why this is unlikely to happen. There’s no clear authorization to use Defense Department monies in this way. There would be litigation. Also, the Defense Department does not want to do this, at all. All Democrats and many Republicans in Congress, too, would not be down with repurposing money for “rebuilding our military” to a make-work monument to political malinvestment on the border. Trump is mad that he didn’t secure his wall in the omnibus, and so he’s throwing out silly ideas and wasting West Wing man-hours by forcing his aides to look into them as though he’s onto something.

If only there had been some viable path recently toward construction of the wall. Rather than spending spring break stewing in the White House over what might have been, Trump could be lounging in a lawn chair by the border right now, sipping iced tea, watching as contractors erect the prototypical barrier of his liking. He could have fulfilled one of his core campaign promises to his base, a promise that not any generic Republican president would have prioritized.

And all he had to do was accept a 10- to 14-year path to citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States at a young age.

That deal has been on the table for more than a month now: Trump gives Democrats a path to citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers; Democrats give Trump his full $25 billion wall funding request. The Trump administration balked at this clean trade when the Senate was negotiating immigration in February and again in the weeks before the omnibus. The master dealer always wanted something more, be it sharp cuts to family-based immigration or enhanced interior enforcement. Democrats were willing to blow money on Trump’s vanity project, handing him a political victory, but they were never going to secure Dreamers’ future by agreeing to the sharpest tightening of legal immigration levels in decades or selling out other undocumented immigrants.

It is confounding that Trump didn’t just take the deal. Yes, he may have gotten some heat from Breitbart over the “amnesty,” but no one reads Breitbart anymore. They would have gotten over it. And in return, he would have been able to build the wall of his dreams! He could spend the next few years bragging endlessly about how he was able to secure this project in spite of what had appeared to be unwavering Democratic resistance. (Oh, how Trump would have enjoyed the Democratic infighting.) Had he taken the deal, he could have even said—and for the first time in his political career, somewhat accurately—that he had shrewdly negotiated a deal. He took the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program hostage, forcing Democrats to give him his wall. Inhumane? Yes. Successful? Absolutely.

Trump could try again in the late-September funding bill, but the calendar will be far too close to the midterms for any substantial bipartisan deal to take place. He could issue a veto threat, but shutting down the government over a border wall five weeks before voters go to the polls, in a cycle that already has Republicans on defense might not fare well for his party. After that, Republicans will either have a slimmer majority in the House or Democrats will have a majority. Neither eases the prospects for large border wall appropriations in the future. Perhaps Trump will have another shot if the courts allow his rescinding of DACA to stand, and Democrats come back to the table.

Trump, as the Post reported, has been “privately grousing that his political supporters could become disenchanted without progress” on the wall. In that case, he should have enchanted them with progress last week.