At a campaign event in Pennsylvania last week, Donald Trump told his followers, "Mexico will be paying for the wall, and I say it respectfully to Mexico, but they will be paying for the wall."
Last night in North Carolina, the president changed the tense: the Republican doesn't just believe Mexico "will be paying" for a giant border barrier; Trump suggested our neighboring country is already paying for it.
"And you know, Mexico is paying for the wall, just so you understand. [Journalists] don't say that. They never say it. But we're gonna charge a small fee at the border. You know, the toll booths."
Trump and his campaign team didn't invest too much energy into a policy platform in 2016, but they were willing to issue a brief document explaining how and why Mexico would pay for a giant border wall. The document said it would be "an easy decision" for Mexican officials to make: our neighbors to the south would agree to a "one-time payment" of between $5 billion and $10 billion to the United States, and the GOP administration would apply the expenditure to a wall.
This position paper, incidentally, is still publicly available on Trump's website.
The "one-time payment" plan never really made sense, and after the president took office, it quietly went away. But the idea that Mexico would pay for a wall remained the Republican's position for much of his presidency, though Trump's posture has shifted repeatedly.
At various times in recent years, Trump has said the Mexican government would pay for the wall, Americans would pay the wall, the U.S. military would pay for the wall, the wall would pay for the wall, and an overhauled NAFTA would pay for the wall. My personal favorite came in earlier this year, when the president insisted "redemption money" from "illegal aliens" would pay for the wall -- despite the fact that no one, even now, seems to know what "redemption money" is.
All of which brought us to yesterday, when Trump pointed to, "you know, the toll booths."
At this point, I'd love to write about the merits (or lack thereof) behind such an idea, but to call this an "idea" is itself too generous. Does he intend to build toll booths? When? With what money? Who'd pay the tolls? If it's American companies and travelers, would it really count as Mexico "paying for the wall"? Since these tolls don't currently exist, what makes Trump believe Mexico is already financing construction?
All of this serves as a reminder that the current president just says stuff. There's no real forethought or policy planning; he just blurts out random thoughts that he thinks will help get him through the day. If pressed for more details on the toll plan, the Republican will very likely promise a blueprint "in two weeks," wait for people to forget the vow, and move on to the next thing.
Given the context, Trump is probably embarrassed -- at least to the extent that it's possible for him to feel shame -- that he made such a fuss about Mexico paying for a border wall, and then failed spectacularly to follow through on his high-profile promise. As Election Day draws closer, he can't very well say, "I blew it," so he's scrambling to throw together a pseudo-plan that sounds plausible.
Or put another way, it's a fresh con, intended to take the place of an old con. No one should be fooled.