The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump tried to make the GOP border emergency fight about him. He lost anyway.

The Senate joined the Democratic-controlled House to pass a disapproval resolution for the national emergency declaration Trump issued to build his border wall. (Video: Monica Akhtar, Rhonda Colvin, Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

President Trump tried to marshal his most potent weapon — himself — to stave off what eventually became an embarrassing rejection from his own party over his declared national emergency on the border.

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. 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. 

The president, along with his aides, continued to hammer that message leading up to Thursday’s Senate vote on the issue. Trump tweeted the day before that Republican senators were “overthinking” it, stressing that it was only about supporting border security. And White House aides made it clear to undecided Republicans that Trump was noticing those who chose to oppose him — particularly if they were up for reelection in 2020. 

After the Senate voted to reject President Trump's national emergency declaration on March 14, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) spoke to reporters. (Video: The Washington Post)

But it wasn’t enough, as a dozen Republicans joined Democrats in dealing Trump a humiliating blow by voting Thursday to nullify the national emergency, setting up what is likely to be the first veto of his presidency.

Trump’s personal pleas and pressure were among a number of missed opportunities and missteps by the White House that contributed to a defeat notably worse than the administration had hoped for in trying to limit defections, according to officials and lawmakers familiar with the efforts, many of whom requested anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

The administration, for example, failed to give opposing GOP senators legal opinions, project details and other information that they had requested about the national emergency, according to lawmakers and Capitol Hill aides. Vice President Pence was also unable or unwilling to make commitments on behalf of the president even while serving as Trump’s main emissary to negotiate with Republicans, people familiar with the debate said.

And for some of the dissidents, it was not clear if anyone — including Trump — could have persuaded them to support the emergency declaration because of their constitutional concerns. 

“If the White House were not relying on the emergency declaration to spend money that Congress had specifically dedicated to other purposes, the president could’ve gotten the $5.7 billion,” said Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), one of the Republicans who voted to reject Trump’s emergency declaration. “And every Republican senator, I think, would’ve enthusiastically supported that.” 

The deep concerns some GOP senators held about potential abuse of the separation of powers have been clear to the White House for weeks. In fact, some White House and congressional aides questioned whether the effort to sway them was even worth it.

“This was the inevitable outcome, and it’s unclear why any effort or political capital was spent trying to avoid it,” said Brendan Buck, a former top aide to former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). “There aren’t the votes to override, so why bother negotiating?”

During a private GOP lunch in late February that Pence attended, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) asked to see any memorandum produced by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that would lay out the administration’s rationale for why the emergency declaration was lawful, according to an official with knowledge of the closed-door discussion.

Cruz had raised a hypothetical question involving a Democratic senator from Massachusetts that struck at the heart of some of their concerns: What if a President Elizabeth Warren declared a national emergency to seize oil wells in Texas? 

A Justice Department official in attendance said the White House had drafted a legal memo the OLC had approved. When Cruz asked to see that document, Pence said he would relay the request to Trump. 

The White House never provided that memo, according to an official familiar with the discussions. 

A similar scenario unfolded a week later, when Republican senators pressed Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen for a list of military construction projects that could lose funding this year as a result of Trump’s emergency declaration. Nielsen told them the issue was largely the purview of the Pentagon — while Defense Department officials at the same time were deferring to Nielsen’s agency for information they needed to make a list of targeted projects.

Senators never got that list of projects either, and some Republicans doubted whether one exists. 

Nonetheless, Trump called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) almost daily to press him on who was opposing his declaration — all while White House officials worked to keep the number of Republican defectors in the single digits, according to two administration officials. 

McConnell hung back, declining to pressure senators and instead focusing on getting as much information to Republicans as possible.

“He didn’t come in and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ ” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said of McConnell. “He was listening to everybody as they were going through it.”

Trump kept saying in private to White House officials and senators that he would be willing to entertain any proposal that would unite most Republicans and keep the vote count on the disapproval resolution at just 50 in the Senate, which would have defeated the measure.

To that end, the administration and a handful of influential GOP senators began quietly discussing whether they could reach a compromise addressing the flaws of a 1976 law, the National Emergencies Act, relied on by Trump to invoke his national emergency. 

But in private, Pence was vague about what the White House would accept in terms of revisions to the law, people familiar with the discussions said. The sole commitment he made was that he would take the information back to Trump. 

“None of the proposals got anywhere close,” a senior administration official said. “We were all wasting our time.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), one of the senators who had negotiated with Pence for days, acknowledged the vice president had a “difficult job.” Alexander voted to reject the declaration.

“The president feels very strongly about his authority, and a number of us feel very strongly about the Constitution,” he said. “So I’m not sure anyone could’ve done a better job than the vice president did.”

Still, the administration averted an even bigger defeat by working with some Republicans in private. Acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan had privately assured Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) — a pledge he made public during a hearing Thursday morning — that four military projects in Arizona would not be touched by the president’s emergency declaration. 

Meanwhile, Assistant Attorney General Steven A. Engel sat down one-on-one with various Senate Republicans to detail the legal arguments to them directly, according to a GOP senator familiar with the meetings. And the administration assured Lankford that it would not start drawing from $3.6 billion slated for military construction projects for at least six months. 

Capitol Hill aides were concerned Trump would lash out at senators who voted no, and McConnell and others in leadership have encouraged the president to focus instead on issues that unite the party moving forward, two people familiar with the talks said.

“I think [the president] respects people with principle,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who told Trump during a private Oval Office meeting last week on China policy that he would be voting to reject his declaration. 

The administration’s efforts with Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) turned out to be the most fruitful. 

Shortly after The Washington Post published a defiant opinion piece by Tillis, announcing his opposition to Trump’s emergency order, the senator contacted the White House to assess its willingness to change the emergencies act, which an increasing number of GOP senators have complained about.

As he engaged in numerous conversations with Justice Department lawyers and the White House Counsel’s Office, Tillis repeatedly asked the administration to commit to something down the line — stressing that he wanted a reason to vote in favor of the declaration, officials said. Finally, Tillis told the White House two days ago that he would support Trump, according to a senior administration official.

“The White House has been very gracious — and, I should say, very patient, given my initial position — in working with us and, as late as today, have a president make a statement that he’s willing to work with us,” Tillis said on the Senate floor before he reversed his stance. 

Other last-ditch efforts were more dramatic. 

Three Republicans — Cruz and Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Ben Sasse (Neb.) — showed up with little notice at the White House late Wednesday and interrupted a private dinner with Trump and first lady Melania Trump, trying to sell the president on a final pitch that would give senators an off-ramp from Thursday’s vote. The senators had sought to come all day but were scuttled by White House aides; eventually, they just showed up.

Cruz began making the case to Trump that the president could reprogram federal dollars toward the wall to expend even more funds without having to declare a national emergency, people familiar with the episode said. The meeting lasted more than an hour, and White House aides including legislative affairs director Shahira Knight and lawyer Pat Philbin were summoned, with Philbin telling the senators the option would not legally work.

Growing frustrated, Trump told Cruz he was not rescinding the national emergency and that the senator could vote however he wanted to vote. Trump berated the group for showing up at the White House late at night and told them they were wasting his time. 

“Hell, if I’d been him,” Graham remarked Thursday morning, “I’d have told us to go to hell.”

Erica Werner contributed to this report.