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Why Trump, even now, says he'll have Mexico pay for a border wall

What Trump has in mind is a misguided promise with very fine print, which he hopes Americans won't read.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel walk along a section of the recently-constructed fence at the U.S.-Mexico border on Feb. 26, 2013 in Nogales, Ariz. (Photo by John Moore/Getty)
U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel walk along a section of the recently-constructed fence at the U.S.-Mexico border on Feb. 26, 2013 in Nogales, Ariz.

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump realized voters were likely to balk at spending billions of taxpayer dollars for a giant border wall, so the Republican told them they wouldn't have to: he'd get Mexico to pay for it.

Last week, the president shifted gears a bit, downplaying the idea that Mexico would pay for a wall and instead arguing that a wall would pay for a wall.

Yesterday, during private negotiations with congressional Democratic leaders, Trump apparently returned to his original position.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) told fellow Democrats after meeting with President Donald Trump Tuesday that the President renewed his campaign-era claim that Mexico will pay for his proposed border wall, CNN reported.The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey had earlier tweeted a corroboration of the story. Politico mentioned it in a report as well. 

It's tempting to ignore obvious presidential nonsense, but given the fact that Trump may shut down much of the federal government next week over this specific dispute, it's probably worth pausing to explain what, exactly, he's trying to say.

Even Trump realizes that the government of Mexico is not going to write a multi-billion-dollar check, send it to the White House, and finance construction of a wall that Mexicans -- like most Americans -- do not want.

Rather, what the American president has in mind is a promise with very fine print.

Earlier this year, Trump wrote on Twitter, "The Wall will be paid for, directly or indirectly, or through longer term reimbursement, by Mexico, which has a ridiculous $71 billion dollar trade surplus with the U.S., The $20 billion dollar Wall is 'peanuts' compared to what Mexico makes from the U.S. NAFTA is a bad joke!"

The key phrase, it turns out, was "directly or indirectly." Indeed, around the same time, he told the Wall Street Journal, "You know, we make a good deal on NAFTA, say I'm going to take a small percentage of that money and it's going to go toward the wall. Guess what? Mexico's paying."

It's all quite muddled, but there's a vague outline of an idea here. 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 profits from the increased trade he hopes will eventually materialize.

Americans will put up the billions for the project, under the White House plan, but we'll kinda sorta pay ourselves back, slowly and incrementally, by way of Mexican trade.

Ergo, Mexico will "pay for" Trump's wall. It's less a policy and more a childish rhetorical game the president hopes to get away with.

For some reason, this isn't persuading congressional Democrats. Imagine that.