And yet, despite Trump’s more disciplined focus on compromise, the specter of the wall—and the bitter divide it has wrought—was ever present. It’s true that Trump will need to attract support from outside his base to compete in 2020. But after two years of failing to construct a border wall, Trump is aware that enthusiasm from his core supporters—which has helped buoy him through political tumult—may be waning. Which meant that sandwiched between soaring calls for unity were starkly partisan appeals for the wall. “As we speak, large organized caravans are on the march to the United States. We have just heard that Mexican cities, in order to remove the illegal immigrants from their communities, are getting trucks and buses to bring them up to our country in areas where there is little border protection,” Trump said. “This is a moral issue.” Democrats erupted in boos and groans.
Read: Trump’s call for unity was never going to be real
The segment resonated with its intended audience, though. “He committed to build a wall,” Steve Bannon told me. “What’s not to like?” An administration official who had previously told me that the president’s lack of follow-through on immigration had caused him to rethink his support texted me that the speech was a “home run.” “Solid,” went the assessment of a former senior White House official. “Gave the base some hard-core immigration stuff.”
What was most striking, though, was that other than calls for a border wall, Trump’s riff on immigration included no concrete policy proposals. This was a decided difference from his address in 2018, when he outlined four “pillars” for reforming the nation’s immigration system: a path to citizenship for 1.8 million “Dreamers”; a $25 billion trust for a wall along the Mexican border; ending the visa lottery in favor of a merit-based immigration system; and limiting family reunification to sponsorships for spouses and minor children only. To review those proposals today is to understand just how little progress the president has made vis-à-vis his key campaign promises, even when his party controlled both chambers of Congress.
It was for that reason, perhaps, that the president’s immigration rhetoric on Tuesday felt plucked from a campaign rally: With Democrats now at the helm of the House, the chances of passing Trump’s favored reforms are all but gone. The president’s only recourse, then, is to conjure the fire-and-brimstone images that earned him votes along the trail in 2016. He thus seemed to speak into a kind of void on Tuesday evening, attempting to amp up his most ardent supporters with platitudes, knowing the days of specific immigration-policy proposals are likely over.
Whether that will be enough come 2020 remains to be seen. Ultimately, any votes gained through Trump’s appeals to bipartisanship will likely be meaningless, should loyalty from his base crumble. The coming days will present something of a dilemma for Trump in this respect, with government funding running out on February 15. The president will have to decide whether to commit to his call for a border wall—whether by declaring a national emergency or by catalyzing another disastrous shutdown—or to compromise with Democrats, keeping the government open but potentially alienating his supporters in the process.
In other words, Trump may have won plaudits on Tuesday from both sides for achievements such as criminal-justice reform. But a 2016 campaign message centered almost exclusively on the border wall continues to define him, for better or for worse. “We made clear in 2016 that nothing else mattered,” a source close to Trump’s reelection campaign told me. “So if we can’t say we followed through, I don’t think passing all the bipartisan bills in the world will save us.”