President Donald Trump loves to talk about “the Wall” that he claims will be built on the U.S-Mexico border. On the campaign trail, Trump wasn’t shy about reminding anyone who would listen that the sprawling barrier of his imagination was thrusting ever skyward in defiance of its critics. As president, Trump continues to tout the virtues of his wall, though he’s less theatrical about it. This month, Trump traveled to California for a photo shoot in front of a series of imposing prototype wall segments. The evidence suggests that Donald Trump clearly wants to make good on his promised border barrier. Right? Maybe not. When it comes to the 15-month legislative fight over the wall, the president has had a number of opportunities to declare his mission accomplished. He has conspicuously passed on all of them.
On Thursday, the president once again insisted that defeat was some rare species of victory. After he won a meager $1.6 billion from Congress, explicitly allocated to existing border fencing and levees, Trump claimed that this was just a down payment on the wall. This is the second time in as many years that Congress has provided Trump with a pittance for border security, and it’s the second time Trump has taken the deal.
The “rest will be forthcoming,” he assured his supporters this week. When, however, remains a mystery. Along with a permanent resolution to the status of the nearly 700,000 DACA beneficiaries, Trump had requested from Congress $25 billion in a border-security trust fund that would bankroll the wall’s construction. Democrats did not object to the price tag but insisted that DACA’s resolution must consist of a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 1.8 million DACA-eligible illegal immigrants. That was it; there was no counter proposal from the White House. That’s where negotiations with Democrats ended.
The Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim revealed that Trump then turned to Republicans on the Hill, seeking support for some winning combination of wall funding, border-security provisions, and DACA protections. None of the president’s proposals would have preserved majority support for the omnibus spending bill in the House, and all of them were swiftly abandoned. This did not have to be. The distance between the White House and the Democrats on wall funding and DACA was minimal. Why didn’t the White House simply counter the counter?
This isn’t the first time the president has been unable to take “yes” for an answer. In January, the White House made it clear that the president expected to secure funding for the wall before his first State of the Union address. That seemed like a feasible prospect. Democratic opposition to funding the wall was fading amid consistent and significant pressure from the party’s base to secure a permanent status for DACA beneficiaries before the initiative sunset forever on March 5. Amid a dispute over precisely how much of the wall’s funding Democrats would agree to appropriate up front (not over the wall’s $20 billion price tag) in exchange for DACA, negotiations broke down. Democrats overplayed their hand, forced a brief government shutdown, and lost. It was a debacle from which Trump emerged stronger and emboldened.
When the government reopened following a conditional Democratic surrender, Trump issued a new request: a modest hike in wall funding and related border-security provisions up to $25 billion in exchange for a pathway to citizenship for the broader DACA-eligible population and the curtailing of family-reunification programs. Absolutists on both sides of the divide over immigration reform issued hyperbolic denunciations of the proposal, but this was a significant concession to Democrats, and there were grounds for compromise. The conciliatory posture was quickly withdrawn. The administration’s offer, Trump surrogates insisted, was non-negotiable. Take it or leave it. They left it.
On February 15, Trump’s proposal received an anemic 39 votes in the Senate. Days later, the Supreme Court decided not to overturn a lower court ruling that allowed existing DACA recipients to continue renewing their status, effectively taking the president’s leverage with Democrats off the table.
The wall, as an issue, was not predestined to drag on well into the second year of the Trump administration. Despite Republicans’ misgivings about the high cost of a project that was doomed to fail at its primary task, they were willing to give the president the wall he wanted. As early as January of 2017, Republicans including Speaker Paul Ryan began floating the idea of a border-adjustment tax, which would impose a one-way duty on imports. The revenue from a BAT would be used to reimburse the treasury for the cost of the wall—in effect, Trump would have his wall and Mexico would actually pay for it. Despite the White House’s tacit endorsement of the proposal, conservatives savaged it. Trump eventually told the Wall Street Journal that the proposal was “too complicated” and a “bad deal.”
So, here we are today: wall-less. This could be a risky place for Republicans. The president regularly takes his frustrations out over his stalled agenda on Democrats, but he is not afraid of savaging GOP lawmakers when it suits him. Indeed, Trump is arguably most comfortable attacking Republicans as pusillanimous cowards. That was, after all, the central theme of his primary campaign, and it suited him well. If Trump is unable to win his wall before Democrats manage to engineer a political comeback in November, he might find that the most advantageous strategy available to him would be to resume his attacks on the professional political class—Republican and Democratic.
The wall has always been better as an idea than a tangible thing, with all its flaws and its sprawling cost. Perhaps Trump would prefer to have his wall as a martyr, occasionally waving its bloody tunic around before the crowd at pro-Trump rallies. If that was the president’s ultimate goal, he’s on track to achieve it.