There’s a lot of scrambling going on right now in Washington. The White House is scrambling to justify President Trump’s decision to declare a national emergency in order to obtain money for a border wall that Congress refused to grant him. Congressional Republicans are scrambling to figure out how they perform the latest iteration of an uncomfortable two-step they’ve executed many times before, claiming that they’re deeply “concerned” about what Trump is doing, while not actually doing anything to stop him.
Meanwhile, Trump's aides have decided that this is the issue that will guarantee the president's reelection:
President Trump and his political team plan to make his years-long quest for a border wall one of the driving themes of his reelection effort — attempting to turn his failure to build such a project into a combative sales pitch that pits him against the political establishment on immigration.
In other words, Trump will try to repeat the extraordinary success he achieved last fall, when he did everything in his power to make the midterm election about supposedly terrifying caravans of asylum seekers and the need for walls to keep them away. The result, you may recall, was an enormous victory for Democrats.
Once again Trump is testing his Republican allies, forcing them to defend actions they don't agree with and wonder whether he'll drag them down with him. Are they going to shake their heads, say "I have concerns," and then help Trump smash through another set of norms in service of a political project they don't even support, just as they have so many times before? Or are they going to actually stand up to him?
We don't know the answer yet, but by now the idea of a significant number of Republicans opposing Trump is almost impossible to imagine.
But before we run through that scenario, let’s remind ourselves that most Republicans in Congress were never that enthusiastic about the idea of a border wall in the first place. They may have supported fencing in certain high-traffic areas (which pretty much everyone supports), but for all the years they negotiated over comprehensive immigration reform, only crackpots like Steve King suggested turning America into East Berlin circa 1972. It wasn’t until Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign that they learned a wall was a potent symbol for many of their own constituents.
Yet they still didn’t think enough of it to actually insist on its construction. For Trump’s first two years in office, Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and could have pushed through funding for a border wall. But it wasn’t important enough to insist on.
Then came the government shutdown — yet another political disaster for the GOP — and Trump’s emergency declaration, which he promptly undercut by admitting that there really isn’t any emergency. “I want to do it faster,” he said. “I could do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn’t need to do this. But I’d rather do it much faster.” If he “didn’t need to do this,” then by definition it isn’t an emergency, which he underscored by promptly heading off for yet another golfing weekend.
And now comes the test. Speaker Nancy Pelosi will bring to the House floor a resolution to reverse the emergency declaration, which will presumably pass. And what will happen in the Senate? Multiple Republicans there have gone on record about the declaration, saying “I would have my doubts” (Sen. Ron Johnson) or “I’m not enthusiastic about it” (Sen. Pat Toomey) or “I have some concerns” (Sen. Roy Blunt), or even “I wish he wouldn’t have done it” (Sen. Chuck Grassley). They think that presidential power has expanded too far, and they worry about setting a precedent that the next Democratic president will use in ways they abhor. But are they actually going to vote with Democrats against Trump?
A few might, but it’s almost impossible to imagine 20 of them voting with all the Democrats to get to the two-thirds majority necessary to override the veto the president has promised. So while the Supreme Court will have the last word, there’s a chance that this controversy will produce the first veto of Trump’s presidency. And that’s fine with him.
Which is the other thing weighing on Republicans' minds. Trump may be quite happy to have that bill pass and then veto it, so he can say he's bravely standing up to the "establishment." He'll be running a scorched-earth, maximally divisive campaign in 2020, counting on fear and hatred to once again carry him to victory. If he thinks it's to his benefit to turn on his own party to do it, and attack Republicans in Congress as a bunch of lily-livered wimps whose loathing of immigrants is insufficiently pure, that's what he'll do.
And as we reach November 2020, we could see a repeat of 2018, with Trump insisting that political victory will be his if only he tells a few more lurid stories of immigrant crime and holds a few more rallies so that his rabid supporters can chant “Build that wall!” (or “Finish that wall!” or “Paint that wall!” or whatever he decides the latest slogan should be), despite all evidence pointing toward defeat. Should that happen, Republicans whose own necks are on the line will wonder whether they might have done anything to prevent being taken down with him. But by then it will be too late. In fact, it probably already is.