Another week, another adult dose of whiplash chaos. Is that even a thing? It is now.
Sunrise on Tuesday morning brought news that the “shutdown committee” had cobbled together a bipartisan agreement “in principle” to avoid yet another government closure. According to reports, the deal will include $1.375 billion for 55 miles of border fencing and caps the overall number of detention beds Immigration and Customs Enforcement will be allowed to maintain. Democrats dropped their demand to cap the number of immigrants who could be detained within U.S. borders.
There is no steel and concrete border wall present in the existing deal, a fact that represents yet another stinging defeat for Donald Trump should he accept the proposal as it stands. Speaking at a Monday night rally in El Paso, Texas, the president feigned ignorance of the proposed deal and the wall it vividly lacks, choosing instead to whip up the partisan crowd with his standard-issue lather of lies and exaggerations. “They say that progress is being made with this committee,” Trump told the audience at one point. “Just so you know, we’re building the wall anyway.”
That does not bode well.
Trump has four possible avenues to take here, and three of them lead directly to acute pain for himself, his party and the country at large. If he shuts down the government again in another harebrained attempt at brinksmanship, that closure will double down on the damage he already did with his last shutdown. Worse, another government closure will come in the hot middle of tax season. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was already badly disrupted by the last one, and will be sent reeling by another.
Folks will not get their refunds, a fact that will be a throat-punch to the national economy. Millions of people, including Trump’s own diehard supporters, are already discovering that the tax cut championed by the GOP was actually a colossal screwing that sent their money to a few people they’ll never meet who have quite a lot of money already. Average refund amounts are down, and many who expect and depend on a refund are finding out they owe the IRS this time around. Pile another shutdown delay on top of that, and the wrath will be palpable.
The second option, an emergency declaration, is equally fraught with peril. To be sure, such a declaration would get hauled into court before the ink was dry and Trump will almost certainly lose, but that is not what has been keeping Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell awake at night. Within the National Emergencies Act is a stipulation that allows a vote by both chambers of Congress to block any presidential declaration of emergency.
If Trump declares an emergency at the southern border in an attempt to get his racist wall, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will surely bring a resolution to the House floor blocking said declaration, and she will win that vote in a rout. By law, the Senate is required to vote on such a House bill within a very small period of time.
For McConnell and the Republicans, there is no good outcome here. A significant number of GOP senators oppose the idea of an emergency declaration on ideological grounds — such an act would empower a future Democratic president to declare similar emergencies at a whim, not an entirely unsound concern — and could vote with Speaker Pelosi and the Democrats. Should this happen, a long-simmering civil war within the GOP would break wide open, and Trump himself would probably start gnawing through White House walls in a fit of rage.
Equally damaging would be if McConnell somehow managed to hold his fractious caucus together long enough to defeat the House bill. In that instance, the entire GOP would be seen lining up behind a deeply unpopular president, his deeply unpopular declaration and his deeply unpopular border wall. McConnell could technically avoid such a vote by changing the Senate rules, but that kind of dodge would be widely interpreted as silent consent. In such an instance, the emergency declaration would fall to the courts, and the power of the executive branch would be significantly — and very dangerously — augmented, at least temporarily.
If Trump does choose to go with a shutdown, a declaration or both, he will have vocal allies in all the usual quadrants. Professional beet-faced-anger person Sean Hannity of Fox News called the proposed deal a “garbage compromise.” GOP House Rep. Mark Meadows, one of the leaders of the wrecking crew known as the Freedom Caucus, perfectly channeled his inner Trump. “This does not represent a fraction of what the president has promised the American people,” he wrote in a text message. “I don’t speak for the president but I can’t imagine he will be applauding something so lacking.”
A third option under consideration by the White House is to avoid both a shutdown and an emergency declaration by plundering disaster relief funds meant for Puerto Rico and California via executive order to pay for Trump’s border wall. This rancid plan, the brainchild of former Tea Party congressman and current Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, would also tap money earmarked to fund family housing construction and other infrastructure projects on military bases.
If Trump feels cornered, this may very well be the plan he latches onto, and all sorts of hell will immediately break loose. According to the vagaries of Trump’s transactional morality, any resulting outrage will only be background noise for him. California and Puerto Rico didn’t vote for him, so why should he care about them?
Trump’s fourth option, of course, is to accept the deal as it stands and lie to his base about the great victory he achieved. Some of them will swallow whatever he says without question, some will be disappointed but will stand by their man, but many of them — especially after they open their delayed, diminished tax refund — will feel bullshitted. His hold on them will be badly damaged.
Trump was asked about the proposed shutdown deal during a Cabinet meeting today. “I can’t say I’m happy,” he replied. “I can’t say I’m thrilled.” He went on to say, “I would hope that there won’t be a shutdown. I am extremely unhappy with what the Democrats have given us.” If a shutdown does take place, Trump said, “It’s the Democrats fault.” Trump made no mention of whether or not he plans on accepting the deal, saying only that he would be holding a meeting later in the day to discuss it. For the record, there are eight Republicans on the shutdown committee compared to nine Democrats. All were involved in the crafting of the proposed deal.
The whole fiasco brings to mind an image of Wile E. Coyote sailing over the side of a towering cliff while holding a sign that reads, “Gravity Lessons.” We did not need to be here. Donald Trump put us here, with deliberation and intent, and now his personal last, best hope is that his base remains as gullible and credulous as they have been to date. Given the slow-rolling disaster his tax bill is turning into, I wouldn’t bet on that with your money, much less mine. For the rest of us, especially those whose lives were turned inside out by the last shutdown, there is only the awful feeling of falling that has been a permanent fixture in our collective gut since the day this brigand barreled his way into power.
This article has been updated.