Now for the real deal — what is a ‘wall’?
Welcome to the eye of the hurricane.
For more than a month, the federal government was in partial shutdown while President Trump and congressional leaders were deadlocked over the president’s demands for money to build his long-promised border wall.
Neither side would budge and all the wiggle room for negotiation, particularly over the stickiest issue, Trump’s proposed wall, had been squeezed out.
Then suddenly on Friday afternoon, Trump announced a deal to make a deal. After a 35-day impasse, the longest partial shutdown in U.S. history, the government would be reopened and back pay released to some 800,000 federal workers, if only for three weeks.
After that, what? Risky as it is to make predictions about this most unpredictable presidency, I believe the past offers clues to where this wagon train is heading: into a debate, I believe, over what is meant by “a wall.”
Contrary to popular belief promoted by Trump and his allies in this deeply partisan divide, Democrats have never opposed “border security.” Over the past decade alone, the Democrats have voted for billions of dollars in funding for physical barriers.
In 2006 the Secure Fence Act passed with bipartisan support to construct physical barriers along 700 miles of the almost 2,000-mile Mexican border.
It won the votes of current Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware and then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama — who said it would “certainly do some good” and “help stem some of the tide of illegal immigration in this country.”
Bipartisan majorities voted to fund physical barriers in 2006, 2013 and even last year.
After the failure of President George W. Bush’s comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2007, enter candidate Trump to inflame the issue in 2015 by describing immigrants in the country illegally in terms of menace.
“Build that wall” became Trump’s defining chant at his rallies. According to Joshua Green’s book “Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Nationalist Uprising,” the “wall” was a mnemonic device to help Trump remember to refer to the immigration issue, a sure crowd-pleaser.
Footnote: One of the advisers was Roger Stone, a longtime Trump friend who was arrested Friday in connection with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race. Small world, Washington.
Yet Trump was about to back away in December from his commitment to a wall-or-shutdown until conservative author-columnist Ann Coulter stepped in. The author of “In Trump We Trust” scorched her former hero in a column, titled “Gutless President in Wall-less Country.” Other immigration-skeptic conservatives joined in the scorching.
Suddenly Trump turned away from the bipartisan bill he was about to sign and instead made new demands of a border wall. But there was no way the new Democrat-controlled House under Speaker Nancy Pelosi was going to approve what sounded like a wall, although that left a long menu of other border security measures, including drones, sensors and additional Border Patrol personnel that would be more effective than an old-fashioned wall.
I see signs of hope, however modest, in Trump’s evolving rhetoric. He has begun to describe his proposal as “a wall, a fence or whatever you want to call it.” He also conceded that a “barrier” could be a fence or “steel slats,” among other possibilities. That did not impress Speaker Pelosi much. “Beaded curtain,” she sarcastically offered.
But that sounded to me and many others like a hint. Maybe the president was getting tired of this single issue, especially as it began to take a noticeable toll on his approval ratings. Estimates were reported of 1 in 5 Americans being affected directly and negatively by the shutdown. Some fraying was even beginning to show around the edges of Trump’s base.
If things follow the traditional pattern in Trump’s Washington, I expect to see both parties extract as many concessions as they can in negotiations, pressured by the possibility of another shutdown that nobody wants. With Democrats receiving almost none of the blame for the shutdown compared with President Trump, who naively let himself take “the blame” for it even before it happened, I don’t expect them to surrender their wall opposition while they’re ahead.
But I also don’t expect Trump to do anything so blatantly obvious as to give up either. Instead, I predict the debate will turn on a barrier of some sort and, regardless of whatever it is, I expect President Trump to call it a wall. He’s never allowed himself to be confined very long to actual facts. Why should he start now?
Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him email at cpagechicagotribune.com.