Three very important things happened on Thursday in Washington.
First, President Donald Trump tweeted this at 7:16 a.m.: “Lets just call them WALLS from now on and stop playing political games! A WALL is a WALL!”
Second, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this of the congressional committee working to craft a compromise bill too keep the government open: “There’s not going to be any wall money in the legislation.”
Third, Trump responded with this: “If there’s no wall it doesn’t work. She’s just playing games. If there’s no wall it doesn’t work.”
Which, well, seems like a dead end.
And a pretty definitive one, given that the conference committee on Capitol Hill only began meeting to hash out a compromise (or to see if there was a compromise to be found) this week. It appears to be over before the talks even really began. And with the next possible government shutdown – on February 15 – just over two weeks away.
Glass-half-full types will note that Trump says (and tweets) all sorts of things – things that are often at odds with one another and that he often goes back on by the next day. And they will also point out that while Pelosi’s pledge that there would be no money for a wall feels conclusive, some other things she said in the press conference suggested she still believes compromise is possible.
Asked about existing barriers and other non-wall options, Pelosi said this:
“If the President wants to call that a wall, he can call it a wall. He’s referencing what we already have, almost 700 miles of wall. So again it’s a place where enhanced fencing, Normandy fencing would work. Let them have that discussion.”
I suppose Pelosi’s comment offers some small path forward. But the reason the government shut down for 35 days previously was because Trump insisted that money must be allocated for a wall and Pelosi (and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer) made clear that he wasn’t getting $5.7 billion to build a wall along the country’s southern border.
Which is, yes, largely a fight over terminology. But that’s exactly where we are today on all of this. Right?
Yes, I know Trump has said earlier this month that he didn’t care what the wall was called.
“They can name it whatever,” Trump said of Democrats on January 11, two weeks to the day from when the last shutdown ended. “They can name it ‘Peaches.’ 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, it’s OK with me.”
Except that about a dozen times since then – including Thursday morning! – Trump has said that he thinks the only way to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants into the United States is a wall. And he keeps using that word. Not “steel slats.” Not “fencing.”
Since January 26, the day after the shutdown ended, Trump has sent 16 separate tweets using the word “wall” at least once (and usually more than once.) And for the 18 months he was a candidate for president, Trump said “we will build a wall!” not “we will build a series of steel-slatted fencing and reinforced barriers!”
Words matter. And the word Trump chooses again and again is “wall.” Pelosi knows that – which is why she has been absolutely adamant since late last year that Democrats will not put one dime toward building Trump’s wall in any sort of compromise legislation. When Pelosi – hours after Trump has told his 50+ million Twitter followers that “A WALL is a WALL” – tells reporters there will be no money in any bill for Trump’s wall, she knows it will set Trump off. And that it lowers his willingness to sign onto any sort of compromise that Congress might come up with over the next fortnight.
On our current course – a battle of words between Trump and Pelosi over the “wall” – we are headed to another crisis moment on February 15. Which, if you look back at Trump’s Twitter feed, it appears he sort of always expected one anyway.
“I wish people would read or listen to my words on the Border Wall,” Trump tweeted on the day the shutdown deal came together. “This was in no way a concession. It was taking care of millions of people who were getting badly hurt by the Shutdown with the understanding that in 21 days, if no deal is done, it’s off to the races!”
By “off to the races,” Trump means one of two paths:
1) Another government shutdown
2) He declares a national emergency at the border
Given the political hit Trump took on the recently concluded shutdown – both in terms of his poll numbers and from elected officials within the GOP – it’s very hard for me to see him triggering a second shutdown in the middle of next week. Which would leave him with only one option: Say that the border represents a national emergency, a declaration that would allow Trump to take from money previously allocated to other departments and use it to fund his border wall.
That move would occasion a legal challenge about Trump’s decision to declare an emergency. But that would be a medium-to-long-term problem, as opposed to the short-term problem of another government shutdown. Which, at this point, Trump (and Republicans) would probably take.
Things can change – of course. But the back-and-forth between Pelosi and Trump on Thursday makes clear that a deal isn’t going to be easy to come by. At all.