As a political matter, the president’s recent gambit infuriated the American mainstream, but satisfied his right-wing allies. By late Friday, they were gone, too. After Trump capitulated – literally one day after boasting that he wouldn’t cave – some high-profile voices from his base quickly turned on him, condemning his pathetic surrender.
For his part, the president still thinks he can put lipstick on the pig. Here was his tweet from late Friday, insisting his retreat wasn’t a concession.
“I wish people would read or listen to my words on the Border Wall. This was in no way a concession. It was taking care of millions of people who were getting badly hurt by the Shutdown with the understanding that in 21 days, if no deal is done, it’s off to the races!”
An hour later, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders pushed a similar message.
“In 21 days President [Trump] is moving forward building the wall with or without the Democrats. The only outstanding question is whether the Democrats want something or nothing.”
Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney added in one of his Sunday show appearances yesterday that the president is prepared to start acting on immigration policy “with or without Congress.”
There’s no great mystery as to what Trump World is talking about.
In fact, it’s a little surprising this hasn’t already happened. For weeks, the president has talked up the idea of a “national emergency” declaration in which Trump would grant himself emergency powers, borrow the “power of the purse” from the legislative branch, redirect funds away from other departments, and use American tax dollars to build a border wall in defiance of Congress’ wishes.
Trump acted as if this gave him leverage: if lawmakers failed to pay his ransom, he’d use this option to go around them. By some accounts, as recently as Friday morning, the president was prepared to pull the trigger on the idea, though he was talked out of it.
Now, Trump hopes to use this as a pacifier for his base. “Sure, I broke my promise to you,” the president is effectively telling Limbaugh, Coulter, et al. “But I’ll make it up to you and declare a national emergency in mid-February. Wall construction will soon follow.”
Of course, approaching the issue in such a way becomes self-defeating. Either there’s an emergency or there isn’t. Not to put too fine a point on this, but there’s no such thing as a pre-arranged, carefully scheduled emergency – a detail the courts are likely to take note of.
Indeed, therein lies the point Trump doesn’t seem to fully appreciate. In his vision, Congress hasn’t given him a wall, so he’ll circumvent lawmakers by giving himself the power to do as he pleases. But that’s a whole lot less likely than he likes to pretend. Once Trump makes an emergency declaration, he’ll be sued, and while anything’s possible in a federal judiciary he and Senate Republicans have moved to the right, the consensus in many legal circles is that this is a case the White House is likely to lose.
The last several weeks reinforce the fact that even the president doesn’t perceive conditions on the border as an actual, proper emergency.
And even if Trump were to somehow prevail in the courts, the adjudication process would likely take so long that by the time he hits the campaign trail ahead of next year’s election, he still will not have delivered on his signature promise.
If you were a right-wing radio host, and this is what the West Wing was pitching, would you feel placated?
Postscript: In March 2016, with his hold on the GOP nomination nearly complete, Trump declared, “I want to not use too many executive orders, folks. Executive orders sort of came about more recently. Nobody ever heard of an executive order. Then all of a sudden Obama, because he couldn’t get anybody to agree with him, he starts signing them like they’re butter. So I want to do away with executive orders for the most part.”
Around the same time, Trump told CNN his thoughts on the “executive-order concept,” explaining, “You know, it’s supposed to be negotiated. You’re supposed to cajole, get people in a room, you have Republicans, Democrats, you’re supposed to get together and pass a law. [Obama] doesn’t want to do that because it’s too much work. So he doesn’t want to work too hard. He wants to go back and play golf.”
Evidently, Trump’s perspective has changed quite a bit over the last few years.