The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s border wall is a nonstarter for Democrats. He knows that.

The Trump administration released a list of hard-line immigration principles Oct. 8, which could threaten to derail a deal in Congress to protect "dreamers." (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post, Photo: David McNew/The Washington Post)

When Democrats struck a tentative deal last month with the president to protect "dreamers" from deportations, they were skeptical that it would turn into anything real.

That skepticism was well founded. Either President Trump has changed his mind about shielding from deportation thousands of young undocumented immigrants in the country, or he never really wanted to do so in the first place. We know this because late Sunday, the administration released a wish list of immigration principles it wants in any deal. No. 1 is funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Except, the wall is a manifestation of everything Democrats despise about Trump and his hard-line immigration stances, simplistic policy ideas and identity-focused politics. Basically, it's a total nonstarter for Democrats and their base. Trump knows this well.

He has spent the better part of this year pushing his wall right up to the edge of negotiations with Congress, only to back off at the last minute because Democrats refused to budge. In April, Congress was up against a deadline to keep the government open. Trump wanted Congress to make a down payment to build his border wall. Senate Democrats threatened to filibuster any spending bill that funded it, which would effectively force the government to shut down on Republicans' watch. Trump backed off.

The exact same scene played out in September's budget negotiations: Trump demanded funding for a wall. Democrats threatened to walk away. Trump backed off.

Congressional leaders haven't ruled out that Trump will ask for wall funding in December, when it's time to pass yet another spending bill. They have no idea how serious he'll be about fighting for it, but it's a threat they have to take seriously because it's one of the policy issues that could cause a government shutdown. And now, Trump is pulling out his wall card for this deal to give dreamers deportation protections that he, himself, is removing.

“The administration can't be serious about compromise or helping the Dreamers if they begin with a list that is anathema to the Dreamers, to the immigrant community and to the vast majority of Americans,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a joint statement Sunday evening, referring to the wish list.

Trump could be derailing a deal to protect dreamers for a wall that he hasn't been serious about getting built. He's not even pretending anymore that Mexico will pay for it. He has backed off every opportunity he has had to force Congress to include money for it. And he waffled on whether the wall was even seriously discussed when he and top Democrats announced their late-night September deal to protect dreamers.

Democratic leaders left the White House that Sunday night sure that a wall wasn't part of any deal. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders then said it was. Trump said the wall would come later. Then he said, "If there’s not a wall, we’re doing nothing."

President Trump said on Sept. 14 a DACA deal will only happen if "extreme security" is implemented along the border. (Video: The Washington Post)

The whole deal devolved into murkiness that raised Democrats' suspicions that they weren't going to have a trustworthy negotiator on the other end of the table. Sure enough, there haven't been any significant developments on a dreamer deal since then — until Sunday, a development that could very well end the deal.

The thing is, Trump has very few friends in Washington who want to help him build this wall. Mainstream Republicans don't like the wall, either. Some of the more hard-line members of the party like the idea, but nearly every border Republican is opposed. They argue that money could be better spent on more technologically advanced border security tools.

If Trump has backed off his border wall, it's a new day in Washington

Plus, using untold billions of dollars for building a wall along 1,900 miles of mostly desert — without a check from Mexico — would be a fiscally irresponsible thing to do for the party that thinks it's the fiscally responsible one.

House Republicans voted through a $1.6 billion down payment this summer, and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) put out a flashy video championing it. But they did all of this knowing the wall was dead on arrival in the Senate and that they wouldn't be forced to actually write that check.

It's hard to overstate what a barrier Trump's border wall has been for getting things done in Washington. It's just as difficult to discern whether he's serious about getting Congress to approve the wall. But by even bringing up the wall as part of a deal with Democrats, it's pretty clear he doesn't want to make one.