IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Demanding a wall, Team Trump struggles with meaning of 'taxpayer'

The White House apparently plans to fund a border wall through accounting tricks. This won't end well.
President Donald Trump reviews border wall prototypes, Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in San Diego.
President Donald Trump reviews border wall prototypes, Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in San Diego.

White House press briefings, which used to be daily events, have largely disappeared in the Trump era, though Sarah Huckabee Sanders occasionally agrees to briefly field reporters' questions in the briefing room. There was, for example, one interesting exchange yesterday:

Q: With the deficit ballooning to over a trillion dollars under this President, where are the additional monies for this wall going to come from? And why is he asking the American taxpayer for them, when he promised Mexico was going to pay?SANDERS: Look, we're not asking American taxpayers for that. We are looking at existing funding through other agencies right now that we can draw on to do that immediately.

There are a couple of important problems with this. The first is Sanders' apparent confusion about the federal appropriations process: if Congress approves spending for a project, that money comes from American taxpayers. If the money is redirected from "other agencies," that's also money from American taxpayers -- because we fund practically every office, department, agency, and bureau.

The second problem is with the White House's plan to fund a border wall through accounting tricks.

Donald Trump declared this morning, for example, that Mexico is "indirectly" paying for a border wall through the recently tweaked NAFTA trade deal. The president added, "Because of the tremendous dangers at the Border, including large scale criminal and drug inflow, the United States Military will build the Wall!"

The idea that the new NAFTA will produce billions of dollars in revenue that the administration can apply to wall construction is obviously ridiculous, but just as importantly, Trump doesn't have the legal authority to simply redirect money from the Pentagon budget because he feels like it.

The debate, such as it is, began in March, when right-wing media personality Ann Coulter appeared on Fox News, and pitched the idea of using military money for the wall to Jeanine Pirro, a close White House ally.

The next morning, Trump declared that the Defense Department is now "rich" and can therefore afford to have some of its its budget applied to the president's wall.

The idea hasn't improved over the last six months. Trump still can't take federal funding devoted to one purpose and then redirect it to some other purpose.

The Washington Post reported at the time:

[T]he military is not likely to fund the wall, according to White House and Defense Department officials. The Pentagon has plenty of money, but reprogramming it for a wall would require votes in Congress that the president does not seem to have. Taking money from the 2018 budget for the wall would require an act of Congress, a senior Pentagon official said.To find the money in the 2019 defense budget, Trump would have to submit a budget amendment that would require 60 votes in the Senate, the official said.

What's more, as we discussed the other day, leading congressional Democrats have already told the administration that rerouting federal funding this way would be illegal. Vox even tried to give the president a hand by putting together a handy explanation of the appropriations process.

It's possible, of course, that this is all some elaborate face-saving measure, intended to make Trump look less weak as he backs down from his government-shutdown threats. But if the president seriously intends to ignore the legal limits on how federal funds are used, the legal fight is going to be brutal.

Postscript: Last night, Trump also made the case that his wall won't be "concrete," but will instead be made of "artistically designed steel slats."

So to recap, the president originally promised Americans that Mexico will pay for a wall. Since then, Trump has tried to redefine the words "Mexico," "pay," and "wall."

And for the record, the administration said -- in writing -- from the outset that Trump intended to build a concrete wall.

If Trump thinks this debate is going well for him, he's mistaken.