Even with his signature policy proposal at stake, even with his own party pushing back more than ever before, even with the first veto of his presidency on the table, President Donald Trump just couldn’t be bothered to try to persuade Congress to back him.
The result was a 59–41 vote to block his declaration of a national emergency to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico. It’s the biggest rebellion among Republican senators against the president, with 12 Republicans joining every Democrat to halt the declaration, and it comes one day after the previous biggest rebellion—a vote to defund the Saudi war in Yemen, which drew seven Republicans.
The direct effects of the Senate rebuke are relatively minimal, because it’s mostly symbolic. Trump has vowed to veto the resolution of disapproval, and there aren’t enough votes in the Senate to override him. Since the law allows the president to declare an emergency and Congress can block it only after the fact, the declaration will remain in place. The more consequential battle is likely to come in the courts.
But beyond the symbolism of this vote, Trump’s nearly complete disengagement with Congress connects the emergency declaration to his broader legislative approach. Despite the stakes of the vote, Trump put little effort into trying to persuade senators that they should stick with him. The president tweeted a few times about it, but, then again, he tweets about a lot of things. He hosted a White House event on drug trafficking at the border on Wednesday, but no senators were invited. Trump has had plenty of distractions—collapsed negotiations with North Korea, visits from Czech and Irish leaders, a visit to victims of a tornado in Alabama, the ongoing Michael Cohen saga, and Paul Manafort’s sentencing hearings—but he also spent the weekend at Mar-a-Lago, getting in some rounds of golf.
When White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was asked on Monday what Trump was doing to whip votes, she could barely even be bothered to claim he was trying. “Certainly, we talk to a number of members every single day, certainly at the presidential and the staff level,” she said. “And we’re going to continue to engage with them in this process.” Likewise, a White House official told my colleague Peter Nicholas that the situation was “not all-hands-on-deck, pedal-to-the-metal” and that “people can vote their will.”
Instead, the White House dispatched Vice President Mike Pence to the Hill. Although Pence was previously a member of the House, he has shown little ability to sway Congress. Pence came close to cutting a deal with Senator Mike Lee, the Utah Republican who expressed constitutional concerns about Trump’s declaration. Lee’s proposal would have effectively let Trump have this emergency, but it would have limited presidents’ authority in the future. But Trump rejected the idea, undercutting Pence, and Lee announced that he’d vote for the resolution blocking Trump’s emergency declaration after all.
Trump’s outreach to senators was so minimal that on Wednesday night, The Washington Post reported, Senators Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, and Ben Sasse showed up unannounced at the White House, while Trump ate with the first lady, to plead with him, but they weren’t able to make any headway.
The result was that the rebels included not just constitutionally focused senators like Lee and Rand Paul, and not just moderates like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, but even senators like Mitt Romney, who has been personally opprobrious of the president but generally supports him on policy.
“With Trump, everything is possible,” Graham told the Post after his visit to the White House, trying to remain optimistic. “Rabbits being pulled out of a hat are just everyday business.”
Everything may be possible, but Trump rolling up his sleeves remains highly improbable. Time and again, he has declined to put much effort into lobbying Congress, even on his top priorities. (His lack of interest echoes that of his predecessor, Barack Obama, who had a distant relationship with Congress.) The prime example in Trump’s term is the failed attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, during which Trump sent members mixed signals and declined to ever commit to any particular outline or strategy. He also didn’t bother to really press Congress for funding for the border wall when Republicans controlled both houses. (A cynic might conclude that Trump was more interested in using the wall as a political bludgeon than in actually building it.) The sole notable exception is the slate of tax cuts that Trump rammed through in late 2017—and those turned out to be a political and economic dud.
The political effects of this disengagement are blunted on the wall, since Trump can veto the resolution and move forward, at least as far as federal courts allow. But Trump’s continued lack of interest will have an impact on his ability to enact more of his agenda and add to a historically thin set of legislative achievements. As Politico reported on Thursday, the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement—the ungainly name affixed to Trump’s NAFTA replacement—is the president’s next top priority, but he has entrusted its passage to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. That’s in part a realistic decision, since Pelosi controls the House, but it’s also a risky one: Why should she do anything to help Trump? Convincing Pelosi to move means convincing enough of her members that it’s to their benefit that she move. If the president isn’t even interested in convincing friendly Republicans to work with him, how is he going to sway skeptical Democrats?