by Madeline Conway · March 9, 2017
As he begins to engage in real policymaking with a fractious GOP caucus, President Donald Trump appears driven by a belief that his bully pulpit will be enough to keep recalcitrant Republicans in line behind him. | Getty
President Donald Trump’s plan for a border wall is showing more cracks.
Trump is claiming that the ambitious — and hugely controversial — construction plan is “way, way, way ahead of schedule,” but in reality, there is growing evidence that Trump’s central campaign pledge is in political peril.
Illegal crossings are down at the U.S.-Mexico border, removing some of the justification for erecting the wall as soon as possible. Trump’s budget chief says the administration still doesn’t know what the wall will be made out of. Trump’s executive order directing federal agencies to identify cost savings to fund the wall sparked a diplomatic crisis with Mexico’s president during his first week in office, but so far found only $20 million in existing funds to finance what is likely a $20 billion-plus project. Now, his administration is floating controversial cuts to the Transportation Safety Administration and the Coast Guard to fund the wall’s construction.
As the issues mount, several prominent Republicans are making their concerns more explicit.
Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told constituents during a telephone town hall Wednesday that “billions of dollars on a wall is not the right way to proceed” to secure the border, according to audio obtained by POLITICO on Thursday. “I don’t support a tariff to pay for any kind of wall.”
Although Gardner framed his position in the language of a fiscal conservative, his concerns are also those of a lawmaker who will face reelection in 2020 in a state where Hispanics already account for 21 percent of the population.
“We shouldn’t just build a wall and add billions of dollars because that’s what somebody said should be done,” Gardner said.
As he begins to engage in real policymaking with a fractious GOP caucus, Trump appears driven by a desire to follow through on the campaign promises he made to his own base of supporters and a belief that his bully pulpit will be enough to keep recalcitrant Republicans in line behind him.
The White House — which is primarily focused now on repealing and replacing Obamacare, a more immediate and similarly perilous legislative priority — insists that wall is definitely going up. The obvious discord, much like the current intraparty battle over health care reform, will eventually serve as another stress test of the GOP’s coalition government — revealing whether traditional and Trump-styled conservatives can actually govern in tandem with an unpredictable president often indifferent to policy details but determined to win every fight.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Thursday brushed off a question about a report from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection released this week that concluded “the flow of illegal border crossings at our southern border dropped by 40 percent” from January to February.
“That’s a very promising sign,” Spicer told reporters about the statistic.
Pressed on whether a border wall was still necessary given the success of the Trump administration in limiting illegal immigration from Mexico one month in, Spicer said, “I think so, sure.”
“It’s not just needed. The president committed to doing it, to the American people,” Spicer continued. “And I think while we can have a good month — and I think we’ll see if that continues — that the president made a commitment to the American people to make sure that this isn’t just an anomaly, and while they might be down, I think we have to do what we can to protect our country both in terms of national security and economic security. So it’s of course still needed. And it’s a commitment the president made.”
The White House’s commitment to the wall comes even as Republicans express skepticism over it. Despite Trump’s insistence that Mexico will pay for the wall, Mexican officials have routinely rejected that assertion — and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell couldn’t help but laugh at it.
“Do you believe that Mexico will pay for it?” POLITICO Playbook’s Jake Sherman asked the Kentucky Republican on Thursday morning. “Uh, no,” he shot back, chuckling.
In an interview with POLITICO Thursday, Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford echoed Gardner’s concerns about whether the wall is worth the the billions it’s estimated to cost.
“The drug traffic that flows through Central America and Mexico comes straight into Oklahoma and greatly stresses our law enforcement capabilities, addiction resources and the well-being of our communities,” Lankford said. “Border security and the completion of a border wall are a key component of efforts to reform our immigration laws, but we can’t pay for it out of thin air. We must keep the massive federal debt in mind as we have these policy discussions about protecting our nation.”
Trump said in his address to Congress last week that “we will soon begin the construction of a great, great wall along our southern border” to “restore integrity and the rule of law at our borders.”
A daily speed read on global trade news
By signing up you agree to receive email newsletters or alerts from POLITICO. You can unsubscribe at any time.
He made an even bolder claim before the Conservative Political Action Conference late last month. “Oh, we’re going to build a wall, don’t worry about it. We’re building the wall. We’re building the wall,” he said. “In fact, it’s going to start soon. Way ahead of schedule. Way ahead of schedule. Way, way, way ahead of schedule. It’s going to start very soon.”
But Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, suggested that the wall process isn’t that far along.
“I don’t think we’ve settled, yet, on the actual construction,” he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Monday. “You can do steel. You could do concrete. You can do a combination of concrete and steel. You can supplement it with different types of technologies and so forth.”
And in some areas, he added, “border control’s actually telling us that they like the one you can see through.”
McConnell said he’s in favor of securing the border but seemed to agree that there is support for a border fence in some areas. “There are some places along the border where that’s probably not the best way to secure the border,” he said.
For his part, Spicer framed Trump’s devotion to making good on his campaign promises as part of his appeal.
“I think one of the things that the American people, regardless of where they stand across the aisle, appreciate about this president is he’s a man that has kept his word,” he said. “He made commitments to them, and he’s fulfilling them to make the country better.”
Ted Hesson contributed to this report.