WASHINGTON, D.C. – APRIL 25: (AFP-OUT) US President Donald Trump speaks before signing the Executive Order Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America during a roundtable with farmers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on April 25, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images) ** OUTS – ELSENT, FPG, CM – OUTS * NM, PH, VA if sourced by CT, LA or MoD ** (Pool / Getty Images)
"You know, I said we were going to build a wall and Mexico was gonna pay for it. But it turns out, the bad hombres heard about Trump, and they stopped coming. They gave up. So we don’t even need a wall. We just needed to let everybody know they’re not going to take advantage of us anymore. And believe me, they know it. And why would I make Mexico pay for a wall when they’re helping us out like they never did before? You wouldn’t believe the cooperation we’re getting now. The Mexicans have been tremendous!"
It sounds like Donald Trump, but it’s not something he said. It’s something he could say, if he wants a lasting way out of a self-created problem.
Until he changed direction this week, the biggest hang-up on a measure to keep the government operating after Friday was his demand that Congress appropriate billions to start construction of that "big, beautiful wall" he promised last year. But he hadn’t been getting many takers on Capitol Hill. Democrats are united against paying for the barrier, and plenty of Republicans don’t think it’s feasible or affordable. Nor is the public convinced: A new Washington Post-ABC News poll has 60 percent of Americans against the idea, which would include some people who voted for him.
So on Monday night, Trump began to climb down from the wall, explaining that he’s content to have this fight later. If he again changes tack, another government shutdown could occur — to the exasperation of voters who hoped last year’s election would end the partisan gridlock. For the moment, though, Trump has flummoxed critics who hoped his demand for wall funding would lead to a shutdown and a widespread verdict of incompetence.
And here’s more good news for Trump: Illegal crossings from Mexico have dropped like a rock — a reaction, presumably, to the "Unwelcome" mat he put out Jan. 20. The number of people apprehended trying to sneak in was down 64 percent in March compared with March 2016, bringing the number to the lowest in 17 years. "The perception of stricter enforcement can change behavior," concludes conservative writer David Frum in The Atlantic.
The case against Trump’s favorite idea is familiar. It would be a logistical nightmare to construct a wall across 2,000 miles of terrain, some of it rugged desert and some of it liquid, in the form of the Rio Grande. Land would be expropriated. The project would take years. And the cost would be high. The Department of Homeland Security prices it at $21.6 billion, but a report by the Democratic staff of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee says the tab would be more than triple that figure. And, let’s not forget, the Mexican government has unequivocally rejected ever providing a peso for this structure.
The president may also have noted that a growing share of foreigners living here illegally came here legally as tourists or students and simply didn’t leave when their time was up. For this cohort, a wall would be irrelevant. Stemming this flow requires putting more resources into tracking such visitors to assure that they depart on schedule. Money that goes to the wall, alas, can’t be spent on this and other types of immigration enforcement that hold greater promise.
But spending for other types of enforcement would appeal to more members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle. Trump may not have trouble getting funds for better technology and other border impediments — anything other than a wall. Maybe that’s been his gambit as the budget deadline approaches: Talk about a wall, but win appropriations for other security improvements. His supporters aren’t likely to object much: The new Post/ABC poll puts his overall approval rating at a weak 42 percent, but among Trump voters, it’s 94 percent. Only 2 percent of those who voted for Trump regret doing so.
If this switcheroo is his strategy, it could let him achieve progress on the basic issue without abandoning his campaign pledge. And if he never gets around to fulfilling that pledge, we’re confident Trump will find a way to portray that as a victory.
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