There is probably no better way to demonstrate one’s manly strength and control than firing off a tweet in capital letters. So it is that, when a dozen GOP senators defied President Trump’s orders and voted to terminate his declaration of a national emergency, his powerful Twitter thumbs sprang into action: “VETO!”
The thrilling message to his supporters: Trump’s got this. He’s totally in command of the situation.
But we are now learning new details about just how personally involved Trump was in trying to prevent defections among GOP senators. It turns out Trump aggressively sought to make this vote all about himself — frequently warning that he would unleash the cult-like wrath of his voters if the Senate didn’t do his bidding — and raged as that effort failed.
What makes this so odd is that even though the Senate and House have now voted to terminate Trump’s national emergency, he actually can veto the measure, and his emergency will proceed. So why the histrionics? One possible answer is that, for Trump, even this interim loss represented an unacceptable display of weakness — with ominous portents for the future.
Let’s start with this remarkable Post report from Seung Min Kim and Josh Dawsey:
In numerous calls with Republican senators in recent days, the president spoke of the battle almost exclusively in personal terms — telling them they would be voting against him while brushing aside constitutional concerns over his attempt to reroute billions of federal dollars for a border wall.
The Post also reports that White House aides informed undecided GOP senators that Trump was paying close attention to their votes, as White House aides worked to “keep the number of Republican defectors in the single digits.” But the particular argument that Trump made to Republicans is really key to what happened here:
He argued that a vote against the emergency would be seen by GOP supporters as being against border security and the wall and would hurt their own political fortunes, according to a person with direct knowledge of some of the calls.
Similarly, The New York Times reports that Trump made a “volley of phone calls” to Senate Republicans and “warned them of the electoral consequences of defying him,” making this argument:
During a meeting on trade on Wednesday afternoon at the White House, Mr. Trump tried to cajole a handful of members to vote his way, emphasizing that a vote “against border security” would be noticed by the party’s base, according to two people who attended.
The Times adds that when this effort failed to persuade Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Trump “flew into a rage.”
The key point here is that Trump’s effort to make this vote all about “border security” failed. Republican senators objected to Trump’s national emergency declaration on separation-of-powers grounds: He used it to gain wall funding that Congress had just denied him. But over and over, Trump commanded them to see this as only about border security, and about him.
Notably, Trump repeatedly threatened them with the idea that his own supporters would see it this way, too, and that this should frighten them very deeply. But it didn’t.
Why Trump was so preoccupied with this vote
Why did Trump invest so much in this one vote, when he always had the option of a “VETO!” to render its outcome moot?
Well, for one thing, a large congressional rebuke on this could weaken his legal stance. Multiple lawsuits underway argue that Trump’s national emergency violated the Constitution by using the emergency to secure funds Congress had explicitly denied him. Senate Republicans have now reiterated Congress’s opposition to funding the wall.
But there’s another plausible explanation for Trump’s rage about this vote: It’s rooted in the same impulse that leads him to keep claiming the wall is currently being built, when it isn’t.
As Trump gears up for his reelection campaign, his aides have been instructing his followers to bellow “Finish the wall!” rather than “Build the wall!” Trump is extremely sensitive to the nuances of what is chanted at his rallies. As Trump himself recently put it: “The chant now should be ‘Finish the wall’ instead of ‘Build the wall,’ because we’re building a lot of wall.”
We actually aren’t. But all this is a reminder of how deeply entangled the wall is with Trump’s belief that his hold on his followers depends on creating the impression that he’s winning everywhere and that he’s perpetually taking control of events.
Crucial to maintaining this impression throughout has been Trump’s insistence that he has bent his whole party to his will on “border security.” (Please remember: Republicans didn’t fund his wall when they held both houses of Congress.) During the government shutdown, news reports indicated that Republicans were splintering, and Trump raged that “there is GREAT unity” on “Strong Border Security,” despite the “Fake News Media” reporting otherwise. But Trump’s capital-letter tweets couldn’t make that true, and he caved. The declaration of the national emergency after that, similarly, was all about projecting action and control.
Now Trump’s command that Republicans see their national emergency vote as one about border security failed. We’ve learned this came after extensive browbeating, including the threat to unleash the anger of Trump voters. But the national emergency is deeply unpopular, and the legal arguments for it are deeply absurd. In the face of that threat, as frightening as it was, reality proved overwhelming.
Trump will do his “VETO!,” and the national emergency will continue. But the wall still faces extensive legal obstacles, and it still isn’t being built. It’s hard to say whether this will ultimately cost Trump with his supporters. But judging by all his behind-the-scenes raging to keep Republicans in line, he certainly seems to think something is amiss.