Trump Was Always Going to Fold on the Border Wall

The president almost always caves in a tough negotiation, and he never had a real plan for using the shutdown to get $5.7 billion from Congress.

Jim Young / Reuters

In mid-December, Donald Trump seemed prepared to cave—yet again—on funding for his border wall. The president had repeatedly failed to secure money for construction. He still wanted to build it, but the Senate had already passed a stopgap funding bill to keep the government running, and the House stood ready to do so as well. Although Trump had said earlier in December that he would be “proud” to shut down the government, his White House spent a week walking that pledge back.

But after an onslaught of criticism from conservative media, Trump suddenly changed his mind: He would, in fact, refuse to approve any funding that didn’t allocate $5.7 billion toward the wall.

As is now clear, however, it’s not that Trump didn’t cave—he merely delayed caving. On Friday, the president announced a deal to reopen the government through February 15, buying time for a longer-term agreement. The announcement is a big win for Democrats, who had demanded that Trump reopen the government before they’d negotiate on border security. Trump did not sound especially optimistic that Democrats would give him the money he’s requested. Replacing his standard refrain of “Build the wall,” Trump was hopeful he could get “whatever you want to call it.”

“After 36 days of spirited debate and dialogue, I have seen and heard from enough Democrats and Republicans that they are willing to put partisanship aside, I think, and put the security of the American people first,” he said. “I do believe they’re going to do that. They have said they are for complete border security, and they have finally and fully acknowledged that having barriers, fencing, or walls—or whatever you want to call it—will be an important part of the solution.”

In other words, Trump not only folded—sustaining all the political damage that he would have in December—but he did so only after a long, bruising shutdown that hurt his public approval and split off even some of his core supporters. This dubious strategy is in keeping with the president’s modus operandi. As I have written, Trump almost always folds. From tougher gun control to family separations at the border to negotiations with hostile actors (from Pyongyang to the Democratic caucus), the president talks a tough game and then generally gives in.

Trump’s desire for the wall is genuine. Hoping to make good on his central campaign promise, he has pursued the project with remarkable tenacity. Unfortunately for him, he has also pursued it with incompetence. After two years as president, Trump still evinces little understanding of how the government works. His vision of the presidency is entirely romantic and cinematic: The heroic chief executive uses the bully pulpit, and the rest of Washington gets in line. Trump is not the only president to underestimate the difficulty of getting things done, but it is surprising that after nearly two years in office, he still doesn’t recognize that simply demanding things without any plan won’t work.

The deal to end the shutdown isn’t the first time Trump has been forced into agreeing to a stopgap funding bill he doesn’t like. In March 2018, he grudgingly signed a spending package that Congress sent him, having previously threatened a veto. The president said he agreed to approve the bill, despite his reservations, because it funded the military, but he was livid that he hadn’t gotten money for the wall.

“I say to Congress, I will never sign another bill like this again,” Trump said. “I’m not going to do it again.”

As it turned out, that was just another one of the president’s many false statements.