At a rowdy immigration-focused rally in El Paso Monday night, President Trump offered a typically free-associative argument for why the United States must crack down on illegal immigration with a wall on the southern border. But the speech was perhaps most notable for what it didn’t say.
With Democratic and Republican lawmakers struggling to strike a border security compromise that would satisfy Trump and prevent another government shutdown, the president has in recent days frequently suggested that he would use his emergency powers to build the wall.
“President is on sound legal ground to declare a National Emergency. There have been 58 National Emergencies declared since the law was enacted in 1976, and 31 right now that are currently active, so this is hardly unprecedented.” Congressman @tommcclintock
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 10, 2019
So it seemed only natural that the president would discuss the possibility at his El Paso rally. Given the apparently sorry state of the negotiations, in fact, it wouldn’t have come as a surprise if Trump had used the event to announce he was pulling the trigger. But just as Trump was preparing to take the stage in Texas, lawmakers in Washington suddenly announced they had reached a tentative agreement for a deal that would include $1.7 billion in border security funding.
The president didn’t engage with the deal’s specifics in his speech, telling the crowd he had declined to be briefed on the details so as not to keep them waiting. “I said wait a minute, I’ve got to take care of my people from Texas. I’ve got to go. I don’t even want to hear about it,” Trump said. “So we probably have some good news, but who knows?” But given that he declined to use the opportunity to threaten the nuclear option, it seems fair to say he is at least momentarily intrigued by the prospect.
The trouble here for Trump, of course, is the same as it’s been for months: Immigration hawks who were promised a $25 billion wall aren’t thrilled at the prospect of trading that promise for pennies on the dollar. “Any Republican that supports this garbage compromise, you will have to explain,” Fox News host Sean Hannity railed on Monday. During the rally, former Trump booster Ann Coulter retweeted the anti-immigration site VDARE, saying that “Donald Trump has not built anything new on the border and he knows it. Crowds really need to start pushing back.”
And yet Trump still holds one critical card. His greatest remaining strength is that, apart from a handful of ideologues, such as Coulter, most of the voters that backed him because he promised them a wall still seem to believe he’s got the goods. And that means that Trump doesn’t need to finish a “wall” to lock down their support. All he needs to do is to keep them convinced that construction is underway, they’re making good progress, and what he really needs from Congress is money to finish the wall. In other words, he just needs to run out the clock.
Will Trump fold on the wall this week, then turn around and declare total victory? Will he continue to offer regular glowing progress reports on wall construction that doesn’t exist? You might protest that this would be a bridge too far for even his biggest loyalists. But going by the jubilation of an El Paso crowd that was happy to trade in the usual “Build the Wall” signs Monday for ones emblazoned “Finish the Wall,” you might not want to bet on it. Why would Trump go to all the trouble of declaring a national emergency when he can build the wall in the hearts of “his people”?
“We are setting the stage, folks,” Trump said. “We are doing whatever we have to do. The wall is being built. It’ll continue. It’s going at a rapid pace.”