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Trump claims he never said Mexico would cut a check for the wall. Let’s go to the tape.

January 10, 2019 at 1:52 PM

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Since 2015, President Trump has proposed no fewer than 13 ways Mexico would pay for a southern border wall. (JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Back in April 2015 — an era so distant in American history that it barely shimmers in and out of view, cloaked in the haze of everything that’s happened since — Donald John Trump promised the United States that he would build a wall on the border with Mexico and that Mexico would cover the cost.

It was at an event in New Hampshire covered by Paul Steinhauser of NH1 News, targeting the state which, as it turns out, would provide Trump with his first victory in electoral politics. But at the time — despite Steinhauser’s accurate assessment that it wasn’t — it seemed like a joke. The TV guy was going to build a wall for free, huh? Okay. Good luck.

The point, though, is that Trump's insistence that Mexico would pay for the wall is, in fact, older than his campaign itself. At that New Hampshire event, he even said how it would happen, in broad strokes.

"I will take it from out of just a small fraction of the money they’ve been screwing us for over the last number of years,” he claimed.

That is salient in the moment because of the ongoing government shutdown that stems from Trump’s insistence that the American — not the Mexican — government would pick up the tab. He went further in comments to reporters on Thursday, claiming that his frequent assertions that Mexico would pay for the wall were always meant to suggest an indirect payment, just like the assertion above.

"When during the campaign I would say, 'Mexico's going to pay for it,' obviously I never said this and I never meant they're going to write out a check,” Trump said. “I said they're going to pay for it. They are. They are paying for it with the incredible deal we made, called the United States, Mexico and Canada — USMCA — deal."

Trump went on to note (unusually for the subject) that the trade deal hadn’t yet been approved by Congress and, therefore, wasn’t yet paying anything for anything. He did not, however, also point out that there is no actual mechanism within that deal that would accomplish the payment he insists will follow.

“When I said ‘Mexico will pay for the wall’ in front of thousands and thousands of people, obviously they’re not going to write a check,” he reiterated. “But they are paying for the wall indirectly, many, many times over, by the really great trade deal we just made.”

The only problem? He did, at times, claim that Mexico would carry out the equivalent of signing over a check.

It’s understandable that Trump might have forgotten that. After all, the mechanism he claimed would be used to force Mexico to pay up evolved so often during and after the campaign that it’s a bit hard to keep track. Here is our best effort at compiling those claims, including at least one occasion when the implication was specifically that he’d cajole Mexico into simply handing over the requisite money. (Much of this comes from the eternally useful database at Factba.se.)

Update: Our JM Rieger dug up another example from April 2016 -- in which Trump says explicitly that they may pay with a check.

April 2015. Method: Trade deficit/deals.

As above: “I will take it from out of just a small fraction of the money they’ve been screwing us for over the last number of years.”

It's worth noting that the trade deficit is not a function of an imbalance between governments but, instead, of the discrepancy between the value of goods and services purchased from or sold to either country. A reduction in the trade deficit does not generate money that the government can use to pay for a construction project.

June 16, 2015. Method: Unclear.

“I will have Mexico pay for that wall,” he said at his campaign launch.

Sept. 15, 2015. Method: Dealmaking.

“Mexico’s going to pay for the wall, believe me,” he said during a speech in Los Angeles. “You know, a lot of politicians have said, 'Oh, they’re, not going to pay, he must be —” They don’t know anything about — they never read ‘The Art of the Deal.’ "

Oct. 28, 2015. Method: Trade deficit/deals.

During a debate, Trump was asked about the claim.

“People say, ‘Oh, how will you get Mexico to pay?’ ” he said. “A politician — other than the people on this stage, I don’t want to — a politician cannot get them to pay. I can. We lose, we have a trade imbalance of $50 billion a year. Believe me, the wall is peanuts by comparison.”

Nov. 30, 2015. Method: The same way he got CNBC to shorten its debate.

“CNBC extended their debate by one hour, two days before. … And who’s the one that said, ‘No way, you’re not going to do it.’ I did. I could stand up there forever, but I said, ‘You’re not going to do it,’ ” he said at a rally. “And everybody told me, everybody — ‘This is like the wall.’ Everyone says, ‘Oh, you’ll never get Mexico to pay for the wall.’ ”

Jan. 6, 2016. Method: Being a business guy.

“Mexico is going to pay for the wall,” Trump said in an interview with MSNBC. “They don’t understand it. They say to me, some of the politicians, ‘How are you going to get them to pay for the wall?’ They don’t get it, because I’m a business guy, that is what I do.”

Jan. 12, 2016. Method: Trade deficit/deals.

“They’ve even asked me, ‘Donald, how can you possibly suggest that they pay —’ and you know how? Because they make billions of dollars a year ripping us off. Billions,” he said. “Look at the deficit we have with Mexico. And the wall is peanuts by comparison. You’re not talking about that much money, relatively speaking.”

March 31, 2016. Method: Mexico would cut a check — or the U.S. would “compel” the country to pay.

After months of criticism over his claim that Mexico would pay, Trump’s campaign sent The Washington Post a memo explaining exactly how it would work.

(The Washington Post)

First, the theory went, the government would propose blocking wire transfers from some noncitizens to people in Mexico. When the Mexican government protested, they would be told to pay for the wall in a lump sum, or the proposal would go into effect. The plan then lists a few other proposed mechanisms: the trade deficit, canceling visas for Mexicans or increasing visa fees.

This latter method, the document suggested, could be a source of revenue itself. As was noted at the time, most of these efforts to siphon money from Mexico would come from Mexican residents, not the government itself.

April 6, 2016. Method: Same.

The memo offered to The Post was published on Trump’s campaign website.

April 13, 2016. Method: Maybe a check.

“You know, the politicians say, ‘They’ll never pay...’” Trump said during a live event with Fox News' Sean Hannity. “100 percent,” he assured the cheering audience.

“They’re not going to write us a check, but...” Hannity replied.

“They’ll pay. They’ll pay. In one form or another," Trump said. "They may even write us a check by the time they see what happens.”

July 27, 2016. Method: Unclear.

"I have these clowns in the back, these pundits,” Trump said at a rally. “And they're saying, 'Mexico's never going to pay for the wall.' Mexico — do you know how much money they make from us each year? And I'm not including with the drugs. I'm leaving that out."

Oct. 22, 2016. Method: Some form of reimbursement. In a “contract” with voters, the Trump campaign pledged that a wall would be built “with the understanding that the country of Mexico will be reimbursing the United States for the full cost of such wall.”

Oct. 25, 2016. Method: Outfoxing Mexican politicians.

“When people say, ‘Well, they will never pay for the wall.’ Of course they will, because they are making so much money,” Trump said. “They make it at the border, they make it every way. Because their politicians are sharper and shrewder than our politicians.”

Nov. 4, 2016. Method: Trade deficit/deals.

“We have a trade deficit with Mexico that nobody would believe,” Trump said at one of his last campaign rallies. “It’s a fraction of what we’re talking about with respect to the cost of the wall, because a lot of politicians ask me the question, ‘How are you going to get Mexico to pay?’ ”

Once Trump won the presidency, he didn’t talk about having Mexico pay for the wall quite as much.

(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

But it did still come up.

Jan. 11, 2017. Method: A tax or a payment.

At his first news conference as president-elect, Trump said that he would push for construction on the wall to start immediately, even if payment from Mexico came later.

“I don’t feel like waiting a year or a year and a half. We’re going to start building,” he said. “Mexico in some form, and there are many different forms, will reimburse us, and they will reimburse us for the cost of the wall. That will happen, whether it’s a tax or whether it’s a payment — probably less likely that it’s a payment. But it will happen.”

Jan. 25, 2017. Method: A complicated reimbursement.

"Ultimately, it'll come out of what's happening with Mexico,” Trump told ABC's David Muir. “We're going to be starting those negotiations relatively soon. And we will be in a form reimbursed by Mexico, which I've always said."

"I'm just telling you, there will be a payment,” he continued. “It will be in a form, perhaps a complicated form."

Jan. 26, 2017. Method: Revenue from overhauling the tax code.

"We're working on a tax reform bill that will reduce our trade deficits, increase American exports and will generate revenue from Mexico that will pay for the wall if we decide to go that route,” Trump said during a speech. “It is time that the American people had a president fighting as hard for its citizens as other countries do for theirs, and that's exactly what I'm going to do for you. Believe me."

Jan. 27, 2017. Method: Withholding a meeting.

In a call with Mexico’s president leaked to The Post, Trump threatened to call off an upcoming meeting.

“We cannot say that anymore because if you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall, then I do not want to meet with you guys anymore, because I cannot live with that,” he said.

April 23, 2017. Method: Somehow.

June 21, 2017. Method: Solar panels to reduce the cost for Mexico.

"We're talking about the southern border, lots of sun, lots of heat,” Trump said. “We're thinking about building the wall as a solar wall so it creates energy and pays for itself. And this way, Mexico will have to pay much less money."

Aug. 27, 2017. Method: Reimbursement/other.

Jan. 11, 2018. Method: One of 10 forms Trump could name.

“I’ve always said we have to have a wall. I’ve also said Mexico’s got to pay for it — sometimes you know on occasion, I’d add who’s going to pay for it? Mexico. Well they will pay for it, OK?” Trump told the Wall Street Journal. “There are many forms of payment. I could name 10 right now. There are many forms of payment, I didn’t say how.”

Asked to name one such method, Trump cited the North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiation that led to USMCA.

May 29, 2018. Method: In an unspecified enjoyable way.

“They make all of this money, and they do absolutely nothing to stop people from going through Mexico from Honduras and all these other countries — the caravan, all of this stuff — they do nothing to help us. Nothing,” Trump said. “They’re going to pay for the wall, and they’re going to enjoy it. Okay?”

By December, with the shutdown fight looming, Trump isolated the USMCA agreement as the source for that repayment.

Jan. 4. Method: USMCA.

“What we save on the USMCA — the new trade deal we have with Mexico and Canada — what we save on that, just with Mexico, will pay for the wall many times over just in a period of a year, two years and three years,” Trump claimed at a news conference last week. “So I view that as, absolutely, Mexico is paying for the wall.”

Precisely as he always said it would.


Philip Bump is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in New York. Before joining The Post in 2014, he led politics coverage for the Atlantic Wire.

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