President Donald Trump sought the open arms of Twitter and Fox News to creatively explain away inconvenient facts about his legal peril and his promised border wall before GOP senators dragged him back to reality with a rebuke from his own party for ignoring a cold-blooded murder OK’d by a foreign colleague.
In Trump’s universe, Mexico is already paying for the wall. And the crimes for which Michael Cohen is going to jail aren’t crimes after all; they were added to his rap sheet by prosecutors as a dig at Trump.
But alternative facts, to borrow the phrase coined by White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway to reject facts they reject without evidence, only go so far. Trump learned their limits Thursday afternoon when Republican senators lobbed at him a resolution condemning Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Trump had ignored the clear conclusion of the CIA that bin Salman was involved in the killing when he issued an exclamation point-laden official statement last month that it was unproven that Saudi Arabia and its crown prince were complicit. It wouldn’t matter anyway, the President said, since Saudi Arabia is buying US military equipment.
Now senators have slapped him on the wrist with Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker’s resolution, passed by voice vote. They more narrowly voted to restricted US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.
Meanwhile, he still has to deal with Congress over the federal budget.
And CNN reported late Thursday that Trump had been in the room when hush payments to women who claimed to have had affairs with him were discussed by Cohen and David Pecker, whose company publishes the National Enquirer.
A new way for Mexico to pay for the wall
Trump won’t have much time to seethe at his allies in the Senate if he wants to keep the government up and running through the holidays.
After a televised chess match in which he had declared he’d be proud to shut down the government if Congress wouldn’t give him funding for his border wall and border security left him in check, the President opened the door to a change of course Thursday when he argued Mexico was already paying for the wall through the trade agreement he’s pushing to replace NAFTA.
“I often stated, ‘One way or the other, Mexico is going to pay for the Wall,’ ” Trump said on Twitter. “This has never changed. Our new deal with Mexico (and Canada), the USMCA, is so much better than the old, very costly & anti-USA NAFTA deal, that just by the money we save, MEXICO IS PAYING FOR THE WALL!”
But the reality is far different.
The trade deal hasn’t been ratified by Congress yet. And even if it is ratified, a trade deal doesn’t necessarily flood the federal coffers with money.
Is the US going to be able to use the NAFTA replacement – the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement – to pay for the wall?
“We’re not,” said Phil Levy, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He ticked through possible revenue from a trade deal – either directly through higher tariffs or indirectly via tax revenue from increased economic activity. There’s nothing to suggest the USMCA will land the government a windfall on either count.
Even if Mexico did start pumping money into the USMCA after it passes, Levy said, that doesn’t mean it would go to the wall.
“There’s nothing that earmarks this type of money for a wall,” he said. “Your income taxes or corporate taxes – they go into general revenue. But it’s still the budget process that determines where those funds go.”
And it’s that budget process that has Trump stymied.
Someone in Washington will have to blink over the $5 billion the President has demanded and Republicans who control the House for less than a month can’t deliver.
Democrats, measuring the drapes in House leadership offices they’ll soon occupy, aren’t in a giving mood since Trump wants the money to declare victory on a border wall they have vowed to fight.
The President drew the line in the middle of the Oval Office earlier this week when he all but dared soon-to-be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer into shutdown mode by pointing out they had been blamed for a brief shutdown in January.
That’s mostly true, but they had forced the shutdown over how to protect the children of undocumented immigrants raised in the US who Trump had stripped of a temporary protected status. Now, those people have been abandoned during the spending negotiations.
Instead, the issue is the $5 billion Trump wants to beef up border security and start building his long-promised wall on the Mexico border. His tweet that Mexico would pay through the USMCA wasn’t an entirely new argument, but – timed immediately after he promised a shutdown – it felt like the beginning of an out before parts of the government run out of money December 21 – the same day Trump could get out of the White House and travel down to Mar-a-Lago for Christmas.
The public largely takes the Democratic side on the wall, according to a new CNN poll conducted by SSRS, in which 57% of Americans said they’re against a wall, compared with 38% in favor. Those numbers are similar to where they were just after Trump took office in 2017. Most who favor the wall say they would continue to do so even if all the funding for it came from the US rather than from Mexico, according to Jennifer Agiesta, CNN’s polling director.
Crimes that aren’t crimes
Trump’s view of the legal problems faced by former members of his inner circle is no less inventive.
Speaking to the Fox News host Harris Faulkner, Trump complained that the crimes his former lawyer pleaded guilty to weren’t crimes after all.
“He made a deal to embarrass me,” Trump said.
Waving printouts of conservative opinion pieces at Faulkner, he said the payment made by the National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., to “catch and kill” a story about his alleged affair with Playboy model Karen McDougal didn’t come from him or his company, so he couldn’t have been involved.
That’s beside the point that prosecutors say the payment to McDougal, which Michael Cohen and AMI both now say was made to influence the election, amounted to an illegal campaign donation. CNN reported later Thursday that Trump had been in the room when Cohen and Pecker discussed the hush payment.
Trump has denied having an affair with McDougal.
Cohen, his onetime fixer and lieutenant, is now – in Trump’s telling to Fox News – a lawyer who “did very low-level work.” According to Cohen’s guilty pleas, that work included orchestrating the payoff. Separately, Cohen was working to get a Trump Tower built in Moscow and trading on Trump’s cachet as a political figure to do it.
“I never instructed him to do anything wrong,” Trump said in the Fox interview. “Whatever he did he did on his own. He’s a lawyer.”
Again, reality differs. Trump says the payments are not crimes, but Cohen is headed to prison. The President says Cohen was a low-level employee who once did him a favor. In truth, Cohen was a top lieutenant who spoke on behalf of his former boss and sought out business deals.
Another former aide who flipped on Trump, onetime national security adviser Michael Flynn, got better treatment from the President in the interview, in part, perhaps, because he thinks Flynn is stronger than Cohen but also because he doesn’t know what Flynn told the special counsel’s office.
“I don’t even know what he said about me,” Trump said of Flynn. “Maybe they scared him enough he’ll make up a story.”
If Flynn says the President did anything wrong, Trump will surely have his own story to explain it away.