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The fine print in Trump's border wall promise comes into focus

The Arizona-Mexico border fence near Naco, Arizona, March 29, 2013.
The Arizona-Mexico border fence near Naco, Arizona, March 29, 2013.

It's probably Donald Trumps' most infamous promise: the president assured Americans he wouldn't just build a giant wall along the U.S./Mexico border, he'd also get Mexico to pay for it. Except, as we discussed on Wednesday, Trump never meant he'd get a multi-billion-dollar check from our southern neighbors.

Rather, the Republican has an entirely different plan in mind, which he tweeted about yesterday:

"I often stated, 'One way or the other, Mexico is going to pay for the Wall.' This has never changed. Our new deal with Mexico (and Canada), the USMCA, is so much better than the old, very costly & anti-USA NAFTA deal, that just by the money we save, MEXICO IS PAYING FOR THE WALL!"

I especially enjoyed Trump using the present tense -- as if we're supposed to believe that Mexico is already paying for the construction of a border wall that exists only in the president's overactive imagination.

But what's truly amazing about Trump's tweet is his willingness to expose his own con. As a Washington Post  analysis explained well yesterday, when he promised voters that he'd get Mexico to pay for a wall, Trump didn't exactly mean "Mexico" -- and he didn't exactly mean "pay."

As we talked about the other day, I understand the basic contours of the president's pitch. In Trump's mind, NAFTA -- or whatever it is we're supposed to be calling it now -- has been tweaked in ways the White House likes. The result, he assumes, will be increased trade with our continental neighbors. The increased trade will translate into increased revenue.

Therefore, as the Republican president sees it, when he spends our money on a wall, he's really just redirecting the billions of dollars in trade profits from Mexico to U.S. coffers to the wall project.

The problem, of course, is those profits aren't real. As the New York Times  explained:

"It's much harder to connect actual provisions of the U.S.M.C.A. to cash for the wall, since they don't put money in the coffers of the Treasury," said Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. "Any connection between labor, auto rule of origin and other chapters to the wall is pretty remote."Scott Lincicome, a trade expert at the libertarian Cato Institute, said he viewed Mr. Trump's claim with "immense skepticism," given that the new agreement merely updates Nafta and that none of the changes will be a major revenue driver.

And why is this important? In part because Trump has made this fight the basis for a possible government shutdown, which would begin a week from today.

But there's also a larger arc to this: the Mexican-financed border wall has been one of the signature priorities of Trump's presidency. As he's helped make obvious, his promise was little more than a transparent sham.