Since the day he announced his White House candidacy, President Trump has wielded calls for a border wall as a political cudgel, a bargaining chip and a rallying cry — a tangible symbol, if completed, of his nationalist aim to “Make America Great Again.”
Now, with time running out to build it, the wall is threatening to become something else for Trump — a drag on his presidency.
Trump’s increasing desperation to deliver on his core campaign promise played out publicly Tuesday during a remarkable televised Oval Office meeting with Democratic leaders during which the president threatened to shut down the federal government this month if he fails to secure at least $5 billion for the project.
The performance stunned a Beltway political class that has grown accustomed to Trump’s daily bouts of showmanship. Once content to blame Democrats for standing in his way, Trump grew visibly exasperated during the contentious 17-minute debate with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and declared that he would accept full responsibility for the fallout.
“I will take the mantle,” Trump said. “I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it.”
For Trump, who once boasted he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose supporters, the fight over the wall has reached a moment of truth as he confronts the reality that, with Democrats poised to control the House in January, this could be his last chance to make good on a promise that has become an existential part of his presidency.
Having already dropped his public vows to make Mexico pay for the wall and issued false claims that parts of the project are well underway, Trump is facing mounting pressure from his conservative base to score a visible win ahead of his 2020 reelection campaign.
“It’s now or never,” said RJ Hauman, government relations director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports the wall. “It would be a failure if Trump didn’t dig in his heels to deliver on his signature campaign promise.”
Other influential voices were more blunt. Commentator Ann Coulter, a onetime Trump supporter who broke with him over the lack of progress on the wall, wrote on Twitter that the president holds “all the cards” in the negotiations but put the odds at 50-50 that he would “cave.” In another tweet, she highlighted a Washington Post fact check that punctured Trump’s claims of progress on the wall and added: “Does Trump think his supporters are dumber than a WaPo reporter?”
Democrats, for their part, gloated over their newfound political leverage. In January, party leaders had offered Trump a deal that would have provided $25 billion for the wall in exchange for a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, known as “dreamers.” The deal collapsed when Trump demanded additional concessions, including deep cuts to legal immigration levels.
Senate Democrats forced a partial government shutdown for three days demanding that the dreamers receive deportation protections in the pending spending bill that month, only to cave in the face of polls showing a majority of the public blamed them for the impasse.
Trump noted, during the Oval Office session, that the Democrats “got killed” politically during that shutdown.
But Schumer and Pelosi stood firm Tuesday, refusing to offer Trump more than $1.3 billion in border security enhancements that they stipulated would not be authorized for a border wall. They also made no mention of the dreamers, who Pelosi said last week would not be part of the negotiations.
“You have called 20 times to shut down the government,” Schumer told Trump. “If we can’t come to an agreement, we have solutions that will pass the House and Senate right now and will not shut down the government. And that’s what we’re urging you to do.”
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Schumer mocked Trump’s “temper tantrum,” while Pelosi told colleagues on Capitol Hill that winning on the wall was “like a manhood thing” for the president.
“He is in political survival mode, and he knows building a wall and trying to give red meat to the far right could maybe save his presidency,” said Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
Trump, Garcia added, looked discomfited by the new political dynamics of a split government after two years in which Republicans had full control of Congress.
“For some time, Trump has been able to bully people, whether it’s Democrats on Capitol Hill or immigrants at the border,” Garcia said. “And finally people are saying the emperor has no clothes. He’s not really in charge, and he’s really not accomplishing anything or keeping his promises.”
As he campaigned for Republicans ahead of the midterm elections, Trump used his stump speeches to blame Democrats for blocking full wall funding as he inflated how much money his administration has spent on wall construction and upgrades. Campaign aides distributed signs to supporters at rallies reading “Finish the Wall!” even though construction has barely started on any new sections.
But since Election Day, the president has grown more frustrated. Ahead of his meeting with Schumer and Pelosi, Trump declared in a tweet that if “Democrats do not give us the votes to secure our Country, the Military will build the remaining sections of the Wall.”
In private talks with the Democratic leaders after reporters left the Oval Office, Trump reportedly tried to convince them that Mexico will ultimately fund the wall by paying higher prices on U.S. goods under a new trade agreement his administration recently signed with Mexico and Canada.
Trump’s desperation was a “moment of honesty on the president’s part,” said Gregory Chen, government relations director at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “It became clear for him that this is a fight, a battle, about something he wants and is hellbent in getting, regardless of whether it has a real benefit of improving border security.”
Trump’s most ardent supporters remained steadfast. Fox News host Sean Hannity, who had joined Trump onstage during a campaign rally, posted video of the Oval Office confrontation on his website under the headline: “Trump UNLOADS on Pelosi, Schumer.”
But other border hawks said the president has now boxed himself in.
“If he doesn’t at least force a shutdown for some time, I don’t see how he can go into 2020 and blame Democrats” over the wall, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates lower immigration levels. “Everyone would say, ‘Of course, they are your opponents, but you didn’t really even try.’ ”