Mockery, Backlash, or Court

Trump is looking at three terrible options in his endless, pointless battle for a border wall.

Donald Trump inspects border wall prototypes in San Diego on March 13.
Donald Trump inspects border wall prototypes in San Diego on March 13. Mandel NganAFP/Getty Images

At her weekly press conference on Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed great confidence in her negotiators’ ability to strike a border security deal with Republicans ahead of the Feb. 15 deadline, without her input.

“It’s up to the conferees to negotiate,” she said. And “if they come out with a bipartisan consensus,” she said, “of course” she would give whatever deal they struck a floor vote.

When a reporter asked if that was her position even if the deal included money for a border wall, though, she couldn’t resist weighing in.

“There’s not going to be any wall money in the legislation,” she said.

It’s not surprising that this is Pelosi’s position—and as goes Pelosi, so go her negotiators. Though the Homeland Security conference committee, which met for the first time Wednesday to deliver pleasantly futile opening speeches, might be able to strike a bipartisan accord to boost non-wall border security spending, the odds of Democrats on the committee agreeing to fund additional miles of “wall” are right around zero. Trump seems to understand this, tweeting Thursday morning that Republicans on the committee “are wasting their time.”

Now that Trump and Pelosi have gone public to confirm the inevitable—that the conference committee isn’t going to fund any “wall”—we have a pretty good sense of what Trump’s options will be in a couple of weeks’ time. They’re all bad.

Trump’s first option would be to sign whatever the committee comes up with, assuming the committee comes up with something. This would allow him to at least argue that by holding out and shutting down the government, he secured a modest increase in border security funding. He could also say that the wall was already being built, a declaration of victory he tested out on Twitter Thursday morning. Most importantly, it would put an end to this episode, on which the politics have been comprehensively terrible for him, and allow the last couple of shameful months to recede into the distance as he begins his campaign for re-election. This is the option that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—who understands that the best way to get out of an absolute loser of a position, other than not getting there in the first place, is to fold quickly and change the subject—would admire.

The downside for Trump: It wouldn’t just be a cave; it would be the final cave. He would have to endure a solid week or so of mockery from all points along the political spectrum.

The next choice would be to threaten a veto of any conference report that doesn’t include funding for a border wall. At first, this option would seem to be prohibitively stupid: We just endured a 35-day shutdown that went disastrously, in all respects, for Trump; another one just might finish him off. But if the stupidity of the position is felt just strongly enough in Washington, it could allow him to get out of the situation without caving—by forcing congressional Republicans to override his veto.

Overriding Trump on the wall is a place where congressional Republicans, who know their base, are loath to go. But they also know that avoiding another shutdown is, as Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts told Politico, an “absolute necessity.” Though McConnell publicly played the role of lockstep Trump ally during the shutdown, he has made no secret since it ended that he thought it was a dumb idea all along. For years after the 2013 shutdown, for which Republicans took the blame, McConnell’s favorite saying when the prospect of another shutdown came along was that “there’s no education in the second kick of a mule.” At his Tuesday press conference, when asked about the possibility of a shutdown after Feb. 15, he amended his statement, saying “there’s no education in the third kick of a mule.” A Trump veto threat over a wall-less bipartisan bill might not be enough to prevent it from getting the 67 Senate and 290 House votes to override that veto—and Trump could then pin the blame on congressional Republicans for being “weak.”

The last option is the one Trump has expressed most interest in: declaring a national emergency and “reprogramming” existing funds toward the construction of his wall. It’s what he threatened to do when he agreed to reopen the government, and it’s what many in Congress have long considered to be the only way out of this situation that would satisfy his megalomania, while knowing it would be a disaster. As the president has said publicly, the implementation problem is that it would get stuck in court for years before any concrete slabs are placed. But it’s beyond politically dodgy, too. The polling on declaring a national emergency to build the wall is lightning-hot garbage, and that’s reflected in the hesitancy among many congressional Republicans to endorse the move. Trump would get stuck in court while splitting his party.

There was a window of about one half-hour on Thursday morning when it appeared there might be a breakthrough that could end the dispute with something resembling peace. Pelosi, in her press conference, said that while there wouldn’t be any wall funding in the deal, she might be willing to go for “Normandy fencing” in certain areas, which would at least restrict vehicular traffic along the border.

“If the president wants to call that a wall,” she said, “he can call it a wall.”

When Trump was asked if he would accept such non-wall physical barriers, though, he said “No.”

“If there’s no wall,” he said, “it doesn’t work.”

Maybe a survey of the above options will move him to reconsider his opinion of “Normandy fencing” in the coming days.