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Trump’s Best Way Out of His Immigration Mess

An open letter to the president.
February 14, 2019
Featured Image
Donald Trump. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Dear Mr. President:

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: Things are looking bleak for you, border-wise. Gone are the halcyon days of your confident boasting that Mexico would pay for a big, beautiful wall. Now, with Democrats back in power in the House, you  are left grouching impotently in Cabinet meetings about the nearly wall-free spending bill Congress is foisting on you, while down the hall aides huddle to discuss whether it will look worse to sign the thing begrudgingly or to make lawmakers go over your head with a veto.

But buck up—there’s no need to despair yet. Sure, you’re not getting your wall now, but only low-energy whiners dwell on the past. The trick will be getting your supporters over the sting. Here’s how you do it.

Step 1: Hold your nose and sign the bill.

The bitter pill first: Congress is going to give you a bill to keep the lights on for a while, and your best bet is probably just to sign it. Yes, it’s yet another capitulation on your central campaign promise. But you blinked first on the shutdown standoff for a reason—most Americans blamed you, not Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, for the shutdown’s sundry negative effects, and your numbers were cratering. There’s no reason to hope things would be different if you forced the issue again. Congressional Republicans realize this—that’s why they struck the deal this week.

True, you could still veto the spending bill. That would certainly send a message to your wall-loving base that you’re sticking with them come hell or high water. But it would also create an enormous headache for the people in Washington you’re going to be relying on most for the next couple years: Senate Republicans. Those senators know plenty of their voters like you more than they like them; nothing would horrify them more, and delight Senate Democrats to boot, than for you to force them to choose between causing another dead-end shutdown and spiking your signature project.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: you didn’t get where you are today by tiptoeing around the concerns of Senate Republicans! More importantly, however, vetoing the bill would interfere with your ability to move on to the next phase:

Step 2: Declare the bill an enormous victory, and pivot to “Finish the Wall.”

A year ago, you asked Congress for a $25 billion wall. A couple months ago, you asked for a $5.7 billion “down payment” on construction. This week, they’re giving you $1.3 billion for 55 miles of new steel-slat barriers. Is this an insulting consolation prize that will have little to no deterrent effect on immigration? Of course! But that doesn’t mean you have to spin it that way.

In fact, $1.3 billion worth of wall is as good as $5.7 billion worth of wall in one crucial respect: Both mean you can be photographed wearing a hard hat and carrying a shovel at a ground-breaking ceremony. For now, starting new construction is what’s important, not how much longer you can go. That you are building anything at all, you can say, is a feather in your cap, given how ardently Democrats insisted they’d give no money at all for the wall. This line won’t hold up forever—and $1.3 billion doesn’t buy you as much time as $5.7 billion would—but it’ll certainly help to reassure your voters today.

And in the meantime, you’ll have managed again to prolong the life of the issue in the eyes of the base. Sure, they’d love it if you’d managed to get them their beautiful, sea-to-shining-sea wall by now. But a wall that’s finished isn’t a wall that’s going to spur them back to the polls in 2020. Fear is a much more powerful motivator than gratitude.

In this sense, it’s better by far to assure them now that construction is hustling along rapidly—and now all you need is for Congress to vote to finish building it.

Does this seem like a rhetorical stretch? It shouldn’t. After all, you’ve already been serving up a version of that story for months: ”It’s not ‘build that wall’ anymore, it’s ‘continue building that wall,’ because we’re building it,” you said at a campaign rally last July. If your fans bought it then, how much more so in a month or two, once it’s actually true!

Of course, this still leaves you with one major problem: The doom-and-gloom types, the naysayers who shout that it’s all a ruse, that you’re reneging on your promises to your base, will remain insufferable. If these were just the ordinary media types or establishment GOP wusses, that’d be one thing—but it’s likely to be the very same immigration hardliners who gave rocket fuel to your presidential candidacy in the first place, and whose disapproval you still have reason to fear.

Clearly something will have to be done about these holdouts. Which brings us to:

Step 3: Smack down the immigration hawks.

Look, nobody can say you and Ann Coulter didn’t have a good run. The author of such seminal works of border fearmongering as Adios, America: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country Into a Third-World Hellhole gave you a serious lift during the GOP primary, when she plugged you relentlessly as the one candidate who was reckless and unbeholden enough to break up the bipartisan pro-immigration stranglehold on Washington and finally get serious about the southern border.

But that ship’s sailed now, and it’s not coming back. There’s a reason the Coulters of the world picked you up in the first place: They don’t forgive political betrayals, and the rest of the Republican lot were already as good as dead to them. Congratulations: After you frittered away two years of GOP control of Congress with no wall to show for it, they added you to the list. Coulter will spend the rest of your presidency calling you a squish and a phony, and you’re gonna have to get used to it.

But so what? Is this Ann Coulter’s Republican Party, or is it Donald Trump’s? Coulter doesn’t own your base any more than Steve Bannon did before you cut him off at the knees for crossing you. And yet you’ve (mostly) held off, because you still fret that maybe she’ll convince a critical mass of people that the emperor has no clothes.

And maybe that fear would be justified, if Coulter spoke for the majority of conservative media. But she doesn’t: the heavyweights, from Sean Hannity to Rush Limbaugh to Lou Dobbs, know on which side their bread is buttered. You think they’ll stick up for the Coulters of the world if you go to war? If you need proof, here it is: Hannity is already sticking up for you.

Where you go from here is easy. Remind them that you followed their advice to your sorrow during the shutdown. And you’ve started building the wall, haven’t you? If that’s really what they care about, what’s not to like?

And then, as a final precaution, distract and move on to the next thing. Remind people of the judges who’ve been placed on federal benches, or your victories in taming the regulatory state.

Oh, I see you’ve thought of this. Your way might work, too.

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.