Politics

Republicans Really Need to Sell Trump on This Border Deal

Here’s how that’s going.

Donald Trump.
President Donald Trump talks to reporters in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Tuesday.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Donald Trump is not a fan of the border deal that congressional negotiators struck Monday night, the one that he would need to sign by the end of the week to avoid the year’s second government shutdown. While he said at a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday that he would have to “study it,” he was “not happy about it. It’s not doing the trick.”

But! He didn’t say he would veto it. As far as first reactions go, that was victory enough for Republican leaders desperate to avoid another disastrous lapse in funding. The trick over the next couple of days, then, will be to convince the president that this is not just his best option but actually a great deal for him.

The most dismaying figure for the president in the deal is the $1.375 billion he “won” to fund approximately 55 miles of new border fencing. That’s not only shy of the $5.7 billion he requested and then shut down the government over in a poorly planned-out effort to secure it. It’s also shy of the $1.6 billion (and 65 miles) that Senate negotiators were willing to give him last summer, before he got the curious idea in his head that he might get more money following a Democratic electoral wave.

But all numbers can be spun, and so Republicans are spinning this one. Several senators and a Republican aide involved in the talks pointed out that Trump will get roughly “three times” the amount of fencing money in this deal that he would get by signing a continuing resolution to fund the government at existing levels through the remainder of the fiscal year. Triple!

They’re also trying to convince Trump that he would be forcing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to eat her own words. Two weeks ago, Pelosi had said that “there’s not going to be any wall money” in the bill, and during the shutdown, she had joked that she might be willing to offer one dollar but no more.

“I remember somebody from the House saying, ‘not one penny, not one dollar,’ ” Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy said on Tuesday. “And based on what I see so far, there’s at least $1.375 billion of those dollars, when the speaker said we wouldn’t see a single one.”

Democratic leaders, for their part, are defending themselves with an aesthetic technicality: There will be no “wall”—only fencing, limited to “currently deployed” technologies such as bollard fencing.

“We’ve always been for fencing,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said during his weekly press conference, “but this doesn’t allow for a concrete wall of any kind.”

In an effort to distract the president from the words “doesn’t allow for a concrete wall,” Republicans are also trying to cheer up Trump by pointing out how many undocumented immigrants he’ll be able to detain. The GOP negotiators on the committee successfully beat back a Democratic request to cap how many “detention beds”—shorthand for the government’s detention capacity for undocumented immigrants—would be available for interior, as opposed to border, enforcement. Democrats, alarmed by the Trump administration’s escalation of interior enforcement, wanted to use the limitation in detention beds to force Immigration and Customs Enforcement to prioritize the deportation of criminals. But after Republicans went public with the new Democratic demand, and were prepared to pin the failure to reach a deal on them, Democrats dropped it.

Democrats, though, were at least able to argue that the deal could bring down the overall detained population. The deal provides detention funds for an “average daily population” of 45,274. Since the current detention population is at about 49,000, Democrats argue, the Department of Homeland Security would have to start drawing down that number to near 40,500 by the end of September to hit the average. One Democratic aide described this mechanism as offering DHS a “glide path” toward reducing its detained population.

Republicans understand that were this the end of the story, Trump would lose his mind. That’s why it’s not the end of the story.

The deal also offers the administration another $750 million in “transfer authority,” meaning $750 million that Trump could tap in the event he needed it. If the president were to tap this entirely, it could pay for another 13,000 detention beds—bringing the total to more than 58,000, well above even the president’s request. Democrats argue that if the president did decide to transfer the money this way, it would take funding away from things like the Coast Guard or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin even suggested that Trump could open himself up to legal issues if he tries to transfer the funds without citing any specific surge in the need for them.

A Republican aide, though, said that Trump would simply have to give notice to Congress if he wanted to transfer the funds this way. A Democratic aide countered that “typically, the administration has respected Congress’ prerogative to turn down transfer requests, and the Department of Homeland Security has never used its transfer authority over the objection of the chair of either the House or Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security.” But that’s not really a denial that Trump would have the ability. And “typically” does not really apply.

Trump seems to have been briefed on this and other enhancements available to him. Some senators are talking about, for example, nearly $900 million worth of Defense Department anti-trafficking funds that Trump could transfer toward “the wall.” Though Republican leaders have been nervous about him declaring a national emergency to build the wall, they’re much more comfortable with him using the narrower tool of transfers to at least make up some of the fencing money he’s not explicitly getting.

And that may be why Trump, while unhappy with the deal, said he was “happy with where we’re going.”

“I’m thrilled,” he said, “because we’re supplementing things and moving things around and we’re doing things that are fantastic, taking from far less important areas. And the bottom line is we’re building a lot of wall.” By Tuesday night, Trump tweeted that once the bill was “hooked up with lots of money from other sources,” he would be “getting almost $23 BILLION for Border Security. Regardless of Wall money, it is being built as we speak!”

Figuring out how he landed at “$23 BILLION” can be tomorrow’s fruitless accounting assignment. But if Trump ends up viewing the bill as something he can “enhance” with pots of money here or there, then that should be enough for him to overcome his initial displeasure with the agreement, sign the damn thing, and avoid a second, pointless government shutdown. Trump’s aides might want to keep him away from Ann Coulter in the meantime, though.