Trump Needs a Fig Leaf

The shutdown won’t end unless the president can look like he fought for and won something—even if it’s meaningless.

Donald Trump; Chuck Schumer
Donald Trump; Chuck Schumer. Photos by Mark Wilson/Getty Images and Zach Gibson/Getty Images

We regret to inform you that President Trump is having one of his ideas again. He’s considering, or says he’s considering, declaring a national emergency and directing the military to construct a “wall” on the southern border. His crack legal team has been looking into the feasibility of this for weeks, and a White House official told CNN over the weekend that the president was “inclined” to do it. Trump, on Sunday, said that the decision was “dependent on what’s going to happen over the next few days.”

As is often the case, what the president considers a projection of strength is actually a projection of weakness. He needs a way out of this shutdown, and a “national emergency” to build the wall, whether it materializes or not, has the stunt-ish sheen he’s looking for.

Because “what’s going to happen over the next few days” is likely the same as what’s happened over the first 17 days of the partial government shutdown: nothing. There aren’t offers flying back-and-forth, only competing statements of resolve. The only unifying factor is a commitment to busywork so that each side can argue that it’s rolled up its sleeves to try to find a solution.

But even these photo-ops are laughable. The only product of the most recent meeting between congressional leaders and the president at the White House on Friday was the formation of a “working group” to negotiate through the weekend. At least that’s how Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell generously described a bunch of Hill staffers having to waste their weekend sitting around with Vice President Mike Pence for a few hours each day. (When asked who precisely would comprise the “working group,” McConnell spokesman David Popp responded, “In the unlikely event I have any details to share I’ll be sure to forward.” The details never arrived.) No progress was made at these meetings. They might have just been watching the NFL playoffs.

If there’s been any movement since the shutdown began, it’s been the two sides moving further apart. Senate Democrats had, in mid-2018, reached an appropriations deal with Republicans for $1.6 billion in border security. They’ve since reduced that offer to $1.3 billion in nonwall border security. The White House’s request has gone from $5 billion to $5.6 billion to, in the most recent dispatch to congressional appropriators, $5.7 billion—and for a “steel barrier.” (Concrete was very 2018.) Democrats, now, are refusing to negotiate until Trump agrees to “reopen the government.”

Democrats are comfortable in this position. In a shutdown, the side that’s making the big policy ask relative to the status quo typically gets the blame. All the other side has to do is watch their rivals squirm. Republicans caved after a couple of weeks of the 2013 shutdown, when Sen. Ted Cruz and hard-right members of the House wanted to defund Obamacare. Speaker John Boehner decided he’d had enough when the government was a day away from a debt default. Senate Democrats, in early 2018, blocked a funding bill when they couldn’t secure protections for Dreamers. They only lasted a weekend before hyperventilating that they’d gone too far, and quickly agreed to McConnell’s offer of floor time to debate immigration a few weeks later. (That time was not used productively.)

Congressional Republicans haven’t revolted yet, but they certainly are squirming. A handful of House Republicans joined every Democrat last week in passing a clean extension of funding for the Homeland Security Department; limiting the number of GOP defectors took a fair share of lobbying from Pence himself. In the Senate, the two Republican senators up for re-election in states that Hillary Clinton won in 2016 are cracking. Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, the most endangered Republican in 2020, wants to fund the government, wall or not. Maine Sen. Susan Collins too would like to see the Senate vote on the funding bills the House passed last week.

Trump doesn’t care if anything he does hurts congressional Republicans, which is why we’re in a shutdown. But he might recognize that he’s at least made enough noise to show that he “fought” for the wall and is ready to shift lanes toward some sort of off-ramp. “In a private meeting with aides at Camp David on Sunday,” the Wall Street Journal reports, “Mr. Trump said he wanted them to come up with a resolution to the shutdown fight that would reopen the government without him appearing to have capitulated to Democrats, a person familiar with the meeting said.”

So what kind of fig leaf could Trump accept? Don’t expect any larger immigration deal, like the DACA-for-wall trade that Trump rejected last year. Both sides have taken that off the table, at least until the Supreme Court rules on DACA’s future. The face-saving offer could, instead, be a little more funding for border security, structured in a convoluted way to allow Trump to say it’s for “the wall” when it’s really not. It could be the classic punt of establishing a Commission for Further Study of Wall Building. Or it could be something more creative that hasn’t yet dawned on Washington’s top strategic minds. This may sound like vague theorizing, but that’s as advanced as congressional discussions have gotten, too.

Trump will give a prime-time address about the shutdown Tuesday night, and later in the week he plans to visit the border. Perhaps this could be the rollout for declaring the wall a “national emergency.” If he does choose that as his escape hatch, then there’s a term for that, too: punting it to the courts.