Republicans and some of Trump’s media allies are urging him to move promptly and resourcefully to find that wall money in unilateral fashion. The White House is letting it be known that aides are searching aggressively for a way to pull the money out of a (MAGA) hat.
But all of this is taking on the quality of an increasingly breathless effort to blow air into a balloon with a leak. The obvious play here is to make Trump feel as if he still has ways at his disposal to take forceful and decisive action and to take control of events, or at least to appear to be doing so.
Ideally, this will persuade Trump that he can sign the deal while also being able to sustain this perception in the eyes of his base — an effort that is deeply entangled with whether that perception is sustained in his own mind — that is, the perception that he is acting to ensure that the wall he envisions is becoming a reality.
Trump himself is working furiously to maintain that perception. The emerging deal would provide $1.375 billion for barriers that are limited to the type of fencing currently in use — which is far short of the $5.7 billion Trump asked for and nothing like the wall Trump has promised his supporters for years.
But Trump tweeted that once this money is “hooked up with lots of money from other sources,” he’ll actually be getting “almost $23 BILLION for Border Security,” and that the wall “is being built as we speak.” No one knows where that sum comes from, and the idea that the wall is being built is a lie. But the details don’t matter: All that matters is maintaining the illusion that Trump is acting and winning.
Trump’s allies are also working overtime to maintain that illusion. Jacqueline Alemany rounds up some of their public statements, and perhaps the best one in terms of sheer propagandistic up-is-downism comes from Rush Limbaugh, who claims that Trump can “portray” the deal “as a win,” after which he “can continue in his efforts.”
Similarly, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) are calling on Trump to declare a national emergency. The whole point of this is not merely to get Trump to do it, but also to create the impression that he has ways of acting decisively going forward.
National emergency appears unlikely
Indeed, the push for Trump to declare a national emergency itself underscores this point. Remember, during the first government shutdown, Trump repeatedly threatened a national emergency, at one point even saying he might do so “in the next few days.” The idea was that Trump can still act on his own, so Democrats should be very frightened and should cough up the unilateral concessions he’s demanding to avoid that.
But it quickly became clear that the idea that this gives him leverage was also an illusion. Even if Trump did do this, legal challenges would likely delay construction until at least 2020. Republicans also quickly realized that Democrats can execute a procedural maneuver to force GOP senators to vote on Trump’s emergency declaration, which they are loath to do.
That’s why Republicans are now adamantly warning Trump off of declaring an emergency. But Trump’s allies are still calling on him to do it, anyway, which at least will create the impression that he has ways of acting.
Trump’s other options are constrained
To be clear, Trump may have ways to gin up at least some more money. But they appear pretty constrained at the outset. The Post reports that some Republicans say Trump can find $881 million in a military program that funds roads and fences to block drug-smuggling. But that’s less money than he’s getting in the current deal, and one would think it would have to be focused on areas where drug-smuggling is happening (most of which proceeds through official ports of entry).
Meanwhile, White House advisers are looking at using an executive order to shift money from various military flood-control and construction projects, including disaster relief funds. But Politico reports that even some inside the White House believe this will be deeply problematic politically and very vulnerable to court challenges.
Even if Trump does find a bit more money, it would result in nothing like his wall. In a recent briefing to reporters that I listened to, Customs and Border Protection officials clarified that the type of fencing they see as most effective is the sort of bollard fencing that’s already being built. And it would get installed in very targeted areas — a far cry from the decisive break with past practice, in the form of a Trumpian monolith, that Trump sold to his supporters.
Of course, it really may be that all that matters to Trump is maintaining the illusion that he is acting decisively and succeeding. At his rally in El Paso on Monday, Trump spoke against the backdrop of an enormous banner that blared: “FINISH THE WALL.” According to the indefatigable Daniel Dale, Trump’s operatives started handing out signs with this slogan in October, and El Paso was the first time it made its way into a banner.
So Trump and his political operation plainly recognize how crucial it is to sustain the lie that the wall is already being built, if only in the minds of Trump’s base. But everyone else knows the grand illusion is cracking up under the strain of reality.