President Donald Trump famously wrote the book “The Art of the Deal,” and his supporters often tout his negotiating skills as one of his chief assets in office. “You’re talking about a president who is the best negotiator on the planet and has the ability to bring people together,” a White House official told TIME on Jan. 31 of the prospect of Trump working with Democrats on immigration.
But in his fight with Congress over border wall funding, Americans are instead seeing the art of the climbdown.
With negotiators looking increasingly unlikely to deliver a compromise on the border that satisfies the president and Democratic congressional leadership, Trump faces the prospect of a second bruising loss. As with other setbacks, a pattern is emerging of how the president publicly responds: he blames Democrats, stokes fears about violence at the border and refuses to admit defeat, instead doubling down on the promises that got him into the situation in the first place.
Those responses, in turn, only make it more likely that Trump will find himself in a difficult position again, especially if the government shuts down at the end of this week or he issues an emergency declaration to build a border wall.
The current fight came after Republicans lost the House in the midterm elections, the kind of moment that led his predecessors to tack toward the middle. Instead, Trump blamed suburban Republicans who lost for not sticking by him closely enough and began a fight over the border wall during the lame-duck period of the last session of Congress.
In December, Trump shut down parts of the government in an attempt to pressure Democrats to provide more than $5 billion to fund a border wall. After it dragged on for more than a month, pulling down Trump’s poll numbers and becoming the longest shutdown in American history, Trump blinked, reopening the government in January without a single extra dollar towards his wall. He ordered a bipartisan group of lawmakers to quickly work towards a compromise, and as that new deadline approaches at the end of this week, it’s looking like Trump may again end up without the money he demanded for the policy that he made the defining issue of his campaign.
On Sunday, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney signaled that Trump might accept less wall funding from a deal with Congress than he has been asking for since last year. “If you end up some place in the middle, yes, then what you’ll probably see is the president say: ‘Yes, OK,’” Mulvaney said on “Meet the Press” on Feb. 10.
And if Trump OKs a deal with less than $5.7 billion in border wall funding, he’ll have to explain that to his supporters, who saw him put much of his political capital on the line for that figure. He’s already previewing how he’ll do that.
The first element of Trump’s messaging strategy on his loss is to continue blaming Democrats, casting them as the weak party even as he has failed to deliver on what he promised. In recent days, Trump has tweeted that Democrats are “so self righteous and ANGRY!”, behaving “irrationally,” and that “they want a Shutdown.”
“I don’t think the Dems on the Border Committee are being allowed by their leaders to make a deal,” Trump tweeted on Sunday, insinuating that the party’s rank-and-file and negotiators are powerless.
Talking about divisions within the Democratic caucus and training focus on their demands may be a savvy move for Trump, particularly right now, as progress has reportedly stalled over Democrats’ desire to limit the number of beds at detention centers.
“If the Democrats get hung up over the number of detention beds, that might actually give Trump some room,” says Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University and a former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. “The public is not going to have much patience for an agreement that gets snagged by an artificial number for the wall or an artificial number for beds in detention centers,” Naftali says. “The public wants the government to run again.”
Just as Trump paints Democrats as politically weak and divided, he also focuses his message on their party being soft on crime, attempting to stoke fears and gin up support for the wall. During the State of the Union address on Feb. 5, Trump devoted multiple paragraphs of his speech to describing his view of the danger at the southern border. He talked about women being sexually assaulted on border crossing journeys, smugglers using migrant children to cross the border, sex traffickers smuggling women over the border and selling them into slavery, and Americans being killed by undocumented immigrants and illegal drugs brought over the border. “The lawless state of our southern border is a threat to the safety, security, and financial well-being of all Americans,” Trump said. And he added urgency to the issue: “As we speak, large, organized caravans are on the march to the United States,” he claimed.
Trump is heading to El Paso, Texas, Monday night for his first rally of 2019, where he will likely continue making the case for his border wall by talking about crime and violence. He highlighted El Paso during the State of the Union, saying it had been a dangerous city until a border wall was built. Experts and locals, however, dispute that characterization.
“[W]e were astounded by the assertion that somehow a border fence magically transformed El Paso into one of the safest cities in the country,” Jon Barela, CEO of the Borderplex Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to economic development and policy advocacy in El Paso and other border cities, told TIME. “We’ve been safe for decades, long before a border fence was put up and I think I speak for most of us in the region, [we] were pretty surprised by the false assertion.”
Trump’s focus on fear and danger allows him to divert attention away from embarrassing setbacks for him in Washington and keep people focused on a more visceral sense of the issue. “Presidents often have stoked fear to try to get what they want,” says Julian Zelizer, professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University. President George W. Bush hyped the threat from Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction to push for the invasion of Iraq, and President Lyndon B. Johnson inflated the threat to U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin to justify an escalation in Vietnam, Zelizer says. But Trump’s insistence on an emergency at the border is “so far removed from anything real,” Zelizer says, “it is almost invented for political purposes. That’s what makes this different.”
Finally, regardless of the political reality, Trump refuses to admit defeat. When he reopened the government on Jan. 25 after weeks of bitter stalemate and without any meaningful progress made, he tweeted, “This was in no way a concession.”
He continues to assure supporters that sections of a border wall are already being built, and shifting the target for what a border wall might actually look like. “This is a smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier — not just a simple concrete wall,” Trump said at the State of the Union (he said multiple times during the 2016 campaign that it would be made of concrete). “We’re actually building a big, big portion of the wall today,” Trump claimed at the White House ahead of his trip to El Paso. Weeks before the State of the Union, he had even made light of the constantly changing terms for the wall. “This is where I ask the Democrats to come back to Washington and to vote for money for the wall, the barrier, whatever you want to call it,” Trump said in January during the partial government shutdown. “They can name it whatever,” he continued. “They can name it ‘Peaches.’”
Even as the specifics change, Trump continues doubling down on the central promise of a physical barrier to block the border for undocumented immigrants. “The Wall will get built one way or the other!” he tweeted Feb. 9, as the new round of negotiations began to stall.
Trump’s stubborn optimism on the prospects for building the wall coupled with his shifting rhetoric on the details allow him to spin defeats as victories, or at least allow him to present himself as the moral victor in the face of obstructionist Democrats.
“He has a knack for declaring victory and convincing his strongest supporters that he actually has won,” says Kevin Madden, former press secretary to then-House Majority Leader John Boehner, now at Hamilton Place Strategies. “I wouldn’t put it past him to not really deliver the full wall that he promised and have Mexico pay for it and still maintain his political base.”
With Brian Bennett in Washington