Stalled on the wall, Trump's path to victory is murky

Analysis: What will satisfy the president's base of GOP supporters?
Image: President Donald Trump talks with a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Border Patrol Agent while touring U.S.-Mexico border wall prototypes near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in San Diego, California, on March 13, 2018.
President Donald Trump talks with a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Border Patrol Agent while touring U.S.-Mexico border wall prototypes near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in San Diego, California, on March 13, 2018.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters file

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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's $25 billion "big, beautiful" wall along the U.S.-Mexico border already has been downsized to a $5.7 billion request for about 150 miles of new barriers.

The fight has cost him 35 days of a government shutdown, several points in most surveys of his approval ratings and the pain of criticism from his right flank when he offered Democrats — to no avail — a three-year safe harbor for about 1 million immigrants in exchange for the smaller request.

Now, with a special House-Senate committee trying to hammer out a deal on border-security spending by Feb. 15 and Trump threatening to use executive powers to circumvent Congress if they don't, the question for proponents of the wall is just what would constitute a victory at this point — and whether it would come in the policy arena or on the political battlefield.

Right now, Republicans are playing small ball on the wall. But some immigration hard-liners say the political stakes could be huge.

If Democrats don't put up money for the wall, Trump will have a ready-made issue for his re-election campaign and to help Republican congressional candidates in 2020, said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks to end illegal immigration and reduce legal immigration.

He's "set up the Democrats to look so weak on border security that they're going to get their clock cleaned," Stein said. "The Democrats are falling right into the bear trap."

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Yet Trump focused his midterm barnstorming tour for Republican candidates on immigration — and the wall, specifically — and watched the House flip from GOP control into Democratic hands.

By offering up money for some border-security measures — but not a wall — Democratic leaders demonstrated that they are sensitive to the political peril of being perceived as uninterested in putting a check on illegal immigration, drug smuggling and human trafficking.

But Pelosi isn't flinching on the wall. "There's not going to be any wall money in the legislation," she told reporters Thursday.

That means the bar has become very low for a Trump policy win. Ironically, the definition of victory on the wall is amorphous.

"There is intense interest among the base in moving the ball forward here," said Ken Cuccinelli, president of the Senate Conservatives Fund and one of several interest-group leaders who met with Trump at the White House to discuss border security this month. "What it specifically looks like or what you call it isn't as important to ordinary Trump supporters."

But Cuccinelli, who thinks Trump should already be using executive powers to build the wall, said just upgrading existing barriers wouldn't amount to a win. "That won't do it," he said.

Outside Washington's Beltway, victory simply looks like stemming the flow of undocumented immigrants and illegal drugs, according to Nick Myers, chairman of the Newton County GOP in the southwestern corner of Missouri.

"Republicans I talk to expect him and the Congress to address the problem as a whole, and I think they believe building new portions of the wall are an important part of that," Myers said. "It's not aimed at who wins or who loses this thing and the perception of politics in Washington, D.C. It's whether these things are accomplished to protect the families of America."

The danger for Trump is that his supporters see him as ineffectual because he long promised that Mexico would pay to build a massive wall along the border. And he has heard complaints from conservative commentators like Ann Coulter, who gave him a tongue-lashing on Twitter when he announced that he would end a government shutdown without getting Democrats to agree to new wall funding.

But Republicans who spoke to NBC uniformly pointed their fingers at Democrats as an immovable and unreasonable obstacle in the president's path. Cuccinelli said the president had bent over backward to shrink his request for funding to a variety of border-security improvements that include enhancing several hundred miles of existing barriers and adding only about 150 miles of new barriers.

"That just looks screamingly reasonable," he said.

James Carafano, a vice president at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the key for advocates of border security is regaining the Democratic side of what used to be a bipartisan consensus that physical barriers are an integral part of controlling the border.

That is, it's less important whether Trump can build a new wall and more important that Democrats acknowledge — perhaps through funding new types of obstacles and upgrades to existing fencing — that barriers can be effective.

"That would be a victory," he said.

The best hope for Trump may be that, come election time, he wins for losing on the promise to build a wall.