President Trump on Thursday predicted failure by the congressional committee tasked with resolving the U.S.-Mexico border-wall standoff and preventing another government shutdown, saying any deal must fund his wall but he doesn’t expect lawmakers to get there.
The president’s bleak assessment came as Republican senators suggested he keep his distance from their negotiations, advice Trump seemed determined to ignore. The comments made clear that a week after the nation’s longest-ever government shutdown came to an end, Congress and the White House are no closer to resolving the dispute that started it in the first place — even as another shutdown deadline looms two weeks from now.
“I don’t think they’re going to make a deal,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office a day after the bipartisan group of House and Senate negotiators met for the first time. “I see what’s happening. They’re all saying, ‘Oh, let’s do this but we’re not giving one dime to the wall.’ That’s okay.”
“But if they’re not going to give money for the wall, it’s not going to work,” Trump said. “And if it’s not going to work, then the politicians are really wasting a lot of time.”
Trump spoke shortly after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ruled out money for the wall in the committee’s final product, saying, “There’s not going to be any wall money in the legislation.”
But she said “enhanced fencing” could have a role in a comprehensive border security solution, adding that “if the president wants to call that a wall, he can call it a wall.”
Members of the committee charged with producing a compromise insisted that such outside interference from party leaders on both sides would only inhibit them from reaching a deal, with several saying that left to their own devices they could do it in a day. But any agreement would require assent from Trump and Pelosi, leading some on the committee to question whether their efforts would ultimately be futile — and raising the question of what will happen on Feb. 15 when the stopgap bill funding the government expires.
Trump again suggested he could end up circumventing Congress by declaring a national emergency that would allow the military to build the wall, although such a declaration is opposed by many GOP lawmakers and would be certain to get tied up in court.
“I believe if the speaker and the president and everybody, and the leaders of our parties in the Senate, would let us, the appropriators, do our jobs, we could do this,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), warning that without such freedom to negotiate, the outcome may be no deal at all.
“I think we’re going to have to have a comprehensive approach, we’re going to have a wall and a fence, technology and everything,” Shelby said. “Or, maybe, nothing.”
Asked whether it would help if Trump stayed out of it and let lawmakers work, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) laughed and said, “That would be nice.”
The GOP message to Trump was a turnaround from two weeks ago, in the midst of the shutdown, when Republicans stood staunchly with the president.
Even lawmakers who are not part of the 17-member “conference committee” were watching warily as Pelosi and Trump seemed to harden their stances over the course of Thursday.
“You’ve got unyielding and unreliable, and that doesn’t make for a successful negotiation,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.). “I admire Speaker Pelosi’s fierce determination to hold to her position, but I frankly think the work of the committee is to find an appropriate resolution.”
Underscoring the pressure on Pelosi as the talks move forward, a group of liberal freshman House Democrats circulated a letter Thursday calling for overall spending for the Department of Homeland Security to be reduced in the course of the committee negotiations — instead of increased as Democratic members of the panel are proposing.
“A Republican-controlled Congress has already sharply increased DHS spending without clear justification,” said the letter being circulated by Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)
Citing “rampant spending on detention facilities for young children,” among other issues, the letter insists: “Not another dollar.”
House Democrats’ proposal for the DHS budget, which the House Appropriations Committee made public Thursday as its starting point in the negotiations, recommends increasing the overall agency budget by about $590 million from 2018 levels, to $55.8 billion for the 2019 budget year.
The plan contains no funding for physical barriers of any kind along the border, instead proposing spending on an array of technological improvements and the hiring of 1,000 more customs officers. The outline also focuses on increased humanitarian spending in response to the Trump administration’s border policies and would block funding to implement a controversial June decision from then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions that would generally disqualify victims of domestic abuse and gang violence from being eligible for asylum.
Such proposals were likely to meet opposition from the Trump administration while failing to go far enough to satisfy liberals in the new House majority. But as it has been all along, the sticking point was the question of the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, the central promise of Trump’s campaign and of his presidency.
After long claiming Mexico would pay for the wall, Trump demanded $5.7 billion for additional wall miles, leading to the 35-day partial government shutdown starting Dec. 22 after congressional Democrats refused to agree to it. Amid an outcry from the public and Republican lawmakers, Trump agreed last Friday to a three-week spending bill to reopen the government while negotiations took place over the wall.
But the president now appears to have declared the talks failed just as they were beginning in earnest. He said he was waiting for the Feb. 15 deadline to decide but suggested he might end up declaring a national emergency to build the wall. “I would do that,” Trump said.
“On February 15th, the committee will come back and if they don’t have a wall, I don’t even want to waste my time reading what they have because it’s a waste of time,” Trump said.
The president also claimed that if border barriers now in place were removed, “you will have so many people coming into our country that Nancy Pelosi will be begging for a wall. She’ll be begging for a wall. She will say, ‘Mr. President, please, please give us a wall.’ It will be very interesting.”
A Pelosi spokesman declined to respond to those remarks.
Pelosi’s comments about the possibility that a final deal could include border fencing echoed remarks from some other Democrats who have suggested they could support some kind of border barriers. That has raised the possibility of a deal that could allow both sides to claim victory, with Democrats signing off on some level of spending for border barriers that Trump could define as a wall and embrace.
But Republicans said Trump has not made clear to them what he could agree to in a final deal. “That’s the central question here,” Shelby said. “Maybe he hasn’t decided yet.”
Trump’s remarks in the Oval Office followed a flurry of morning tweets in which he alternately demanded a wall and declared one was already being built.
“Democrats, despite all of the evidence, proof and Caravans coming, are not going to give money to build the DESPERATELY needed WALL,” Trump wrote at one point. “I’ve got you covered. Wall is already being built, I don’t expect much help!”
Pelosi chided Trump for the tone of his comments.
“What did he say today? It doesn’t matter what Congress does?” Pelosi said. “Really, a president who wants Congress to become completely irrelevant in how we meet the needs of the American people? No. Come on. Let them work their will.”
Administration officials have pointed to about 40 miles of replacement fencing built with money allocated by Congress in 2017 and a mix of replacement barriers and new structures, including a levee wall system in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, that are slated to begin this year under a 2018 allocation of $1.3 billion.
Trump has cited those projects as evidence that his promised wall is underway, although no new linear feet have been constructed, officials said in December.
Paul Kane and David Nakamura contributed to this report.