I think my positions are going to be what the people in this room come up with,” Trump said. “If they come to me with things I’m not in love with, I’m going to do it. Because I respect them.”
Conservatives who were prominent in the effort to elect Donald Trump to the presidency reacted with foreboding to the impression of impending compromise created by the Tuesday’s meeting between President Trump and key Democratic and Republican leaders focused on immigration. Ann Coulter and Tucker Carlson were particularly critical of the statement quoted above, which seemed to put President Trump in the “lead from behind” position typical of Barack Obama’s treacherous approach to national security affairs.
From day one, and repeatedly thereafter, candidate Trump staked out a strong forward position on border security, focused on the historically evocative meme of a “great wall”:
I will build a great wall – nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them every inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.
In his opening remarks at Tuesday’s meeting – after the usual niceties (including an imperative for any legislation that briefly channeled Jeb Bush: “It should be a bill of love. Truly it should be a bill of love. …”) – President Trump deployed the wall meme, as usual, in the context of dealing with the damage porous borders inflict on the nation:
But we have tremendous numbers of people and drugs pouring into our country. So, in order to secure it, we need a wall. … We have to close enforcement loopholes. Give immigration officers … the equipment they need … and this really does include a very strong amount of different things for border security.
Whatever anxiety it causes his understandably worried supporters – as I wrote recently, promising legislation, repeatedly betrayed, has been the pattern of GOP betrayal regarding immigration for decades. Refining the wall meme with references to some actual components of effective border security may be a reassuring sign that work is being done to put the rhetorical trope into action.
So, despite the president’s apparent willingness to hand the leadership baton to a bipartisan lineup of the usual suspects in Congress, the conclusion that he will let the wall take the fall if required to get some kind of compromise that averts a government shutdown is, at least at the moment, premature. This doesn’t obviate the need for watchful waiting, however. After all, we have been recently reminded of the elasticity of what appear to be emphatic commitments to action by the U.S. government. Judging by the headlines (and the vapidly furious reaction of the PLO and its supporters) one would think that the U.S. is now firmly on its way to moving the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
But shortly after his dramatic announcement that, unlike previous presidents, he is doing just that, President Trump did exactly what his all his predecessors had done – he signed the waiver of action, allowed by law, delaying the move for another six months. Judging by his words (and the reaction against them) one would think that something dramatic is actually taking place. The sound and fury is all in place, but does it signify anything?
I don’t mean to say that nothing will happen. It may or may not. But when his predecessors signed the waiver in the past, they could and did say similar things. At moments like this, one appreciates the wisdom of Christ’s admonition to look to the fruits – not to promising words or large-looming actions – when judging the true import of supposedly prophetic appearances.
Be that as it may, people (including me) are sincerely hopeful that President Trump is moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and they are praising him for his action. Now, in reference to the border wall, candidate Trump repeatedly said, “I am building a wall.” Of course, since he had not yet been elected, this was obviously an emphatic statement of intention, not fact (unless, like gender fluxions, wishing does make it so). Now, as president, he is moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, but not for at least another six months.
Applying the same logic to the border wall, what if Congress passes a bill recognizing the damaging consequences of our porous border situation, and mandating the construction of a wall and/or other border security and control measures (like the legislation in 1995 recognizing the fact that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and would be the site of the U.S. Embassy there). What if the legislation envisages funding for walls, where appropriate, over the next 10 years, and even sets aside some money for the initial steps required to pursue design and construction. Though only preliminary action is actually underway (as was supposed to be the case for the Embassy move in Israel) is the U.S. government building “the wall” or not?
As with Walter Mitty’s dreams, who’s to say? Perhaps, once a legislative compromise has passed, we will be ordered by some federal judge to see a wall being built simply because the law says so, and the president is pleased to enforce the law as a promise kept. A wall thus construed by law might well be an improvement over promising congressional legislation in the past, whose construction barely outlived the political heat in which it was forged. If only legal fiction were good enough for national security work!
Then, like the U.S. Embassy in Israel, would-be illegal immigrants outside our boundaries would stay put for years to come, deterred by the wall of our president’s dreams. But to this fond hope, I fear, any bipartisan “bill of love” that is to come will quietly say, “Dream on!” The question is, will Donald Trump accept their pantomime, or will he decisively cast the veto – or hammer out a deal for clear and present border security – that brings America fully awake, proving at a stroke that he is indeed the president he promised to be.