When President Trump caved during the last government shutdown fight and agreed to three weeks of government funding while bipartisan conference committee talks got underway, his propaganda machine spun into overdrive to portray it as a glorious victory for him.
The argument has been either that Democrats were actually the ones who had caved by agreeing to enter into negotiations after Trump pushed them into it, or that Trump had shrewdly set the table to declare a national emergency for the wall that the public would rally behind, now that they’d seen him being flexible enough to reopen the government.
Now, if much of the reporting out there is to be believed, most signs are that Trump is set to surrender on the wall again. And once again, the ground is being laid to magically transform that surrender into a triumph.
Politico reports that many Republicans believe that Trump is now “cornered,” and that “inside the White House, the Trump team is increasingly aware that the president is trapped.” The reason for this is simple: Congressional Republicans do not want another shutdown, and they do not want Trump to declare a national emergency, because both options put them in a horrible position.
Instead, Republicans want Trump to accept the deal that emerges out of conference committee talks.
This deal, which would fund the Department of Homeland Security and avert a shutdown in mid-February, appears to be moving toward a real compromise. As The Post reports, negotiators have “narrowed their differences” on two key issues — the wall, and the number of beds funded for the detention of migrants by Immigration and Customs Enforcement:
The two issues moved in tandem, with Democrats offering more money for border barriers in exchange for fewer detention beds. Democrats are trying to limit the Trump administration’s ability to detain border crossers, preferring alternatives such as ankle bracelets. Republican negotiators are in favor of both more barrier funding and expanded detention centers.
Also in the mix is a key element of the Democratic proposal: $500 million in money to upgrade facilities at the border so the conditions are more humane and medically safer for asylum-seeking families and children. And Democrats are pushing for various other border security measures more technologically in sync with the 21st century.
In effect, the core trade-off is this: Democrats are offering more money for barriers — though well short of the $5.7 billion Trump is demanding — in exchange for nudging the immigration system ever so slightly in a more humane direction, to better cope with the humanitarian needs of arriving families and by discouraging the rounding up from the interior of longtime undocumented residents.
As such, this could end up being a non-awful compromise. But, while it would require Democrats to accept some barriers, it would also require Trump to climb down from his demand for a wall.
Trump’s rhetoric has been scripted to clear space for a climbdown
Interestingly, Trump has used rhetoric that seemed designed to create space for such a compromise, if necessary — particularly when that rhetoric has been scripted for him.
For example, in his State of the Union speech, he declared that he wants a “smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier,” to be “deployed in the areas identified by border agents as having the greatest need.” Similarly, in other recent remarks, he called for “steel barriers in high-priority locations.”
That formulation allows for Trump to accept steel barriers — that is, the type of steel bollard fencing that is already being built, and which Democrats have backed in the past — in places identified by Customs and Border Protection, such as high-density areas, where more fencing might have some utility.
That is plainly not anything like the wall he promised his supporters — a dramatic and monolithic superstructure that would represent a major break from how things were previously done, vaulting it into the realm of equal-parts symbolic statement and total victory for Trump.
We simply cannot know whether Trump will decree in the end that whatever barriers emerge from conference constitute an acceptable climbdown from that. Compounding the problem, Trump toggles back and forth between the “steel barrier” formulation and demanding his “wall,” as he did in his speech to Congress, and particularly when his Twitter thumbs (and not his speechwriters) are doing the talking.
How Trump can surrender while proclaiming victory
Politico also reports that White House advisers are examining ways that Trump might be able to fund the wall through some sort of executive action that falls short of declaring a national emergency.
It’s unclear what that would look like. But put all this together, and you can see one way out of the impasse: The conference committee reaches a deal that includes some barriers and some of the things Democrats want; Republicans tell Trump they want him to accept this deal and don’t have the stomach for the alternatives; White House aides persuade Trump that if he does take the deal, he can still use executive authority to secure more wall money (with details to be worked out later) anyway.
Trump can boast that he cleverly got Democrats to give him a “down payment” on his wall, even as he shrewdly set the table to get the rest of the money for it by acting decisively on his own. He totally owned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and he’s on track to getting his wall, anyway.
Now, in this scenario, it’s likely that some segments of the right-wing media would tear into Trump for surrendering. But if you don’t think large swaths of the Trump propaganda machine would find a way to spin this outcome into a magnificent victory for him, you haven’t been paying attention.