During the course of the 2016 campaign, one singular promise defined Donald Trump’s candidacy: should he be elected president, a wall would be built along the U.S.-Mexico border and Mexico would pay for it.
On Thursday, that promise officially died. President Trump told Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) that he would sign a government funding bill that would pay for the construction of just 55 miles of border barrier. The White House also said that Trump would declare a national emergency to allow him to reallocate resources from other accounts in order to build even more.
Mexico was not on the hook. Instead, taxpayers would foot the bill and the president would usurp Congress’ powers over the purse to get the rest.
It was, on a pure policy level, a reversal of his campaign pledge and a constitutional challenge to a co-equal branch of government. And yet, few in the Republican Party raised a stink. Indeed, with few exceptions, they cheered him on, framing his handling of the latest shutdown showdown as a stroke of strategic brilliance.
“The Pentagon has already announced that they have the legal authority to transfer dollars. So, in the end, he will have maneuvered the Democrats into being the open border party,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who informally advises President Trump, said in an interview. “I think Trump proved [with the last shutdown] that Democrats won’t cave just because you close the government. And with his popularity rebounding quickly, it makes sense to me that he just declare victory.”
McConnell, long a self-proclaimed institutionalist, said he supported the emergency declaration. So too did members of the Freedom Caucus, the small government faction that once complained bitterly of former President Barack Obama’s executive overreach.
Their acquiescence was the latest signal of Trump’s firm grip on the Republican Party—a grip likely to grow only tighter as the 2020 election approaches.
“He’s won them over and they will not flip on him over the details of this wall fight because that is not the driving issue for them,” said Tim Miller, a former top GOP strategist who has become a vocal Trump critic. “The core of his base, the core of the conservative leaders that got behind him early, doesn’t care about policy. It is all about triggering the libs. And Trump is doing a good job at that.”
But Thursday’s move also reflected a dutiful effort by the president and his aides to keep his conservative critics quiet.
Over the past few days, Team Trump has been working the phones to convince close allies—and potential critics of the funding bill—that his perceived loss is actually a big win. On Wednesday, The New York Times reported that the Trump White House had called Fox stars Lou Dobbs and Sean Hannity, two prominent outside advisers and longtime friends, to assure them that Trump had extracted concessions from Democratic lawmakers he supposedly wouldn’t have gained without the protracted government shutdown.
The president and his senior staff, including White House Deputy Chief of Staff and former Fox News exec Bill Shine, worked his allies behind the scenes out of a self-awareness and concern that a deal that didn’t get him his desired $5.7 billion in wall funding could ding his standing as a hero to his base, at least for a cable news cycle or two.
Two sources close to Trump told The Daily Beast that the president has, in recent days, expressed sharp frustration to aides and associates that a clear victory would never materialize. He privately acknowledged, these sources said, that he and his team would have to “put on a happy face,” as one source characterized it, with the final agreement.
Still, most Trump allies were more than content to play along. Well before Thursday afternoon, conservative-media heavy hitters had already laid the groundwork for praising Trump for snatching at least something from the jaws of victory.
On Tuesday, right-wing radio icon Rush Limbaugh told his listeners that the money Trump and the GOP would be getting for border security—roughly $1.35 billion—is “an insignificant amount of money, except, when measured against zero.” That same day, Hannity said on his radio program that, “To me, [the funding bill] actually works out fine. But he has to declare the national emergency for that to work.”
That the president ultimately chose to go down this route was not a surprise to confidants and aides, half a dozen of whom told The Daily Beast that they had expected Trump would ultimately sign a government funding deal and couple it with an emergency declaration. One current White House official said that the president “has for days asked [those around him] if he should declare an emergency and when,” if other options fail, with a tone making his preference “obvious,” the official stressed.
A former senior White House official said on Wednesday that the president “has no appetite for another shutdown,” and growing “comfort regarding executive action.”
In some corners of the conservative movement, Trump’s decision to pull the trigger—and the willingness of Republican lawmakers to support it—was greeted with trepidation and annoyance. Conservative columnist Ann Coulter declared that an emergency declaration would not compensate for the harm that she believed the shutdown deal would cause. One former Republican lawmaker, meanwhile, predicted that his party would ultimately be divided on the declaration, especially if Trump decided to raid the Department of Defense’s budget in order to fund border wall construction.
But when told that McConnell had already given the president his blessing, the lawmaker was momentarily speechless.
“Oh, wow,” he said, adding, “Well, he’s got a primary,” in reference to McConnell’s re-election campaign in the 2020 cycle.