On Thursday, the twentieth day of the government shutdown, with no end to it in sight, President Trump went to Texas. He didn’t want to go. “It’s not going to change a damn thing, but I’m still doing it,” he told a group of television-news anchors at an off-the-record meeting on Tuesday, according to the Times. It was his advisers’ idea, he said. He was just going along.
On his way out of the White House, he stopped to give a series of improbable quotes to the press. When asked if the buck stopped with him, in the context of a shutdown that he single-handedly brought about, last month, in an attempt to force Congress to pay for a border wall, he turned Harry Truman’s dictum on its head. “The buck stops with everybody,” Trump declared. When asked if he was prepared to declare a national emergency to get the money that Congress is denying him—in other words, if he would use the terrifying powers of his office to escape a political jam of his own making—he rambled. “We have to get a win, or I’ll have to go national security,” he said. “One or the other. Either we’re going to win or make a compromise. I’m O.K. to making a compromise. Compromise is in my vocabulary very strongly. So we’re either going to have a win, make a compromise—because I think a compromise is a win for everybody—or I will declare a national emergency.” Then he flew to Texas.
In McAllen, a city on the southern tip of the state, Trump participated in a so-called roundtable with local and federal officials. It’s not difficult to find people in border areas—congressional representatives, sheriffs, mayors, residents—who oppose more fencing and who bemoan how their communities are misrepresented to whip up conservative voters. But those people weren’t invited to the roundtable. Room was made for props: guns, drugs, and cash, seized by border officials, in a fearsome array. As the officials explained to Trump what he was looking at, though, it turned out that much of it had been seized at ports of entry—the designated points along the border where people and goods go back and forth every day—not along the border’s unwalled expanses. A Border Patrol agent described a series of photographs that had been blown up and printed on poster board for the event, including one of a stash house in which smugglers keep migrants. “This is a stash house, Mr. President,” the agent said. “The smugglers, they don’t care. They’re treating human beings as commodities. They put them in deplorable situations. Sometimes they’re in these houses up to eight days. Sometimes even more. This is terrible.” Trump went to the border to boost his anti-migrant agenda. Somehow, in a setting orchestrated by his own White House, Trump was lectured by a federal agent about the awful conditions in which migrants are kept. If anybody in the room noticed the irony, nobody said so out loud.