Much of the lead-up to Friday’s government-funding deadline has felt like déjà vu. On Monday night, as with December’s eve-of-shutdown talks, Republicans and Democrats reached a deal that guarantees only a small fraction of the amount of money the White House has demanded for a border wall. And as they had in December, conservative lawmakers bristled at the proposal. Finally, as if on cue, media personalities such as Sean Hannity lambasted the compromise as “garbage.”
President Donald Trump, however, decided to rewrite his part of the script.
Throughout the last government shutdown, Trump was unequivocal in his demands. He made clear in multiple remarks, including his first address from the Oval Office, that he would not sign any bill that doesn’t include $5.7 billion for a wall.
But this time around, when presented with a compromise package that includes only $1.38 billion for a wall, the president seemed oddly nonplussed. On Tuesday afternoon, Trump made his first public comments on the deal. Along with wall funding that falls far short of the president’s initial request, the agreement also reduces the number of migrants and undocumented immigrants who can be held in detention by 17 percent.
“Am I happy? The answer is no, I’m not. I’m not happy,” Trump told reporters during a Cabinet meeting at the White House. But the president didn’t say that he would reject the plan, and instead, he suggested that he had other ways of securing funding for a border barrier. “I’m adding things to it,” he said. “It’s all going to happen, where we’re going to build a beautiful, big, strong wall.”
Those last comments offer a hint as to why Trump doesn’t share the ire of outside advisers such as Hannity, and may be inclined to sign the bill. According to multiple sources in the White House and on Capitol Hill, unlike in the last round of shutdown negotiations, Trump feels like he has more latitude to use executive powers to secure his desired wall funding. Those sources said that Trump has always been inclined to take charge of wall funding on his own, such as through the declaration of a national emergency. But his advisers urged him off that course throughout the January government closures, unsure of the measure’s legal ramifications.
In the past few weeks, however, the White House has quietly laid the groundwork for an executive answer to Trump’s border-wall demands. The president may not be happy with the bipartisan funding deal struck on Monday, but he’s better prepared now than he was last month to make up for it.
“He’s inclined to sign it and go the executive-action route,” said a House Republican aide familiar with the president’s thinking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss private conversations. On Wednesday morning, CNN reported that Trump intends to approve the agreement, citing two people who have spoken with the president.
Trump would have several options for acting unilaterally after agreeing to keep the government open. He could declare a national emergency, which would allow him to circumvent Congress to tap into certain funds. The president could also pull money from different agencies and reprogram it for the construction of a border wall. Options include accessing Treasury forfeiture funds, diverting some Pentagon funds intended for counternarcotics operations, or using money from the Army Corps civil-works program. Each of these routes would help guarantee the funding Trump wants, but would carry risks as well, including swift legal retaliation from Democrats. “This is a legal question, and we’re very happy to relocate it from the halls of Congress into the courts,” Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland told reporters last month.
During a press conference on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seemed to suggest that he was aware of Trump’s intentions to supplement the spending deal with executive action. “First of all, I hope he signs the bill, and second of all, I hope he feels free to use whatever tools he’s legally allowed to use to enhance his efforts to secure the border,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters. Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the conference committee that’s negotiating the agreement, added after the press conference that he plans to discuss options with the president. He said that Republican lawmakers were “universally more supportive” of transferring funds toward border-wall construction rather than declaring a national emergency.
But even with the threat of executive recourse looming, Democrats on Tuesday seemed pleased with the way the negotiations are playing out. “The deal worked out pretty good for us, frankly,” said one House Democratic staffer on the Appropriations Committee, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the press. While Democrats didn’t get their desired cap on the number of immigration detentions allowed in the United States, the staffer said that the low figure negotiators reached for wall funding represents a kind of “unconditional Republican surrender.”
Conservatives, however, seem frustrated with the negotiations’ outcome. Over the weekend, according to the House Republican aide, members of conservative groups such as the Freedom Caucus made peace with the notion of a less than stellar deal—comforted, like Trump, by the promise of executive action. It was a different attitude than they had during the last round of shutdown talks, when conservatives close to the president, such as Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, urged him to keep the onus on Congress alone to fund the border wall. Over the weekend, those members reluctantly agreed that no deal to fully finance the wall was in sight, and that executive action was necessary, the aide explained.
But on Tuesday, following the release of more details about the conference committee’s bipartisan deal, conservatives were livid. “They’re fuming about how one-sided the agreement is,” the Republican aide said. “I would’ve said conservatives would support it with the expectation of executive action to follow, but the deal is bad enough where there may be some drama.”
Given the apparent conservative frustration, and with folks on Fox News continuing to sound the alarm, it’s worth wondering whether Trump will change his own tune, too. That’s what happened in December: Trump, at the 11th hour, absorbing backlash from the likes of Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, said he was no longer willing to sign a bill passed unanimously by the Senate to fund the government. The president may be sending strong signals now that he supports the current compromise, but hours of Hannity are still to come this week.
Lawmakers have until Friday at midnight to finalize the terms of the deal, push it through both chambers of Congress, and get a signature from the president. If they don’t make the deadline, the government will shut down again for the second time in less than a month—an outcome lawmakers from both parties have made clear would be unacceptable.
At this point, though, committee members are feeling confident, said the House Democratic staffer: “The only wild card here is Trump.”