One of the victims of Donald Trump’s Presidency is history, even very recent history. Caught up in the maelstrom of daily, and even hourly, headlines, it is difficult to remember last week, let alone last month or last year. Especially at a moment like this, when the President is threatening to usurp the powers of Congress by declaring a national emergency at the southern border, it is essential to look back.
The political battle over the border wall is essentially a diversion, and from Trump’s perspective, it has already served its purpose. A month ago, he endured the worst two weeks since he was elected. First, he forced out John Kelly, his long-suffering chief of staff, and engaged in a farcical process of trying to find a replacement. Then Michael Cohen, his former lawyer, was sentenced to three years in prison, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York released a court document that appeared to confirm that Trump was personally involved in an illegal pre-election scheme to silence women who claimed that they had had affairs with him. Finally, James Mattis, the Defense Secretary, resigned in protest at the President’s unilateral announcement of a U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria.
At the end of this tumultuous period, many people in Washington were speculating about whether Trump could survive until the end of his term. In forcing a shutdown over his demand for $5.7 billion in funding for the wall, and then remaining in the White House for Christmas and the New Year, he sought to change the subject and rally his base around the incendiary issue of immigration. He succeeded. For three weeks now, the fight over the border wall has dominated all other news. But the diversionary jig is almost up. Sometime soon Trump will have to accept defeat on his funding demand or follow through on his threat to declare a national emergency. If he chooses the second option, it will raise anew the concerns over his authoritarian tendencies and fitness for office—not least among Senate Republicans, whose continued support is about all that stands between him and impeachment.
So what will he decide? True to his history as a reality-television star, he is trying to maintain some suspense. In an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity on Thursday, during his photo-op visit to the Rio Grande in McAllen, Texas, he said, “We have the absolute right to declare a federal emergency.” But, he added, “I think we are going to see what happens over the next few days.” On Friday afternoon, during a meeting at the White House with supportive law-enforcement officials and local politicians, he appeared to walk that message back, saying, “What we’re not looking to do right now is the national emergency. We want Congress to do its job.”
On Friday night, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Office of Management and Budget was preparing contingency plans for the shutdown to last through the end of February. However, the political pressure to reopen the government, parts of which have now been closed for twenty one days, is intensifying. On Saturday, the shutdown will become the longest ever. Hundreds of thousands of federal employees have just missed their first paychecks of 2019, and the media is busy telling some of their stories. (On Friday morning, for example, MSNBC showed a moving interview with a federal worker in Georgia whose wife is battling cancer. He seemed more resigned than bitter.)
Despite the efforts of Hannity and some of his fellow Fox News hosts, there is no sign that Trump’s effort to shift responsibility to the Democrats is working. A poll, carried out by YouGov for The Economist, indicated that fifty per cent of Americans hold Trump most to blame for the shutdown, and thirty-two per cent mostly blame the Democrats in Congress, with self-identified Democratic and Republican voters divided along predictable lines. More alarming for the White House, among independents, forty-seven per cent placed the blame primarily on Trump, and just twenty-six per cent blame the Democrats most.
Which side will blink? Standing next to the Rio Grande alongside Trump and Hannity, John Cornyn, the senior G.O.P. senator from the Lone Star State, predicted that Republicans on Capitol Hill will stand behind Trump, whereas Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer will “crater” as they start to hear from constituents struggling to pay their bills. This was wishful thinking. On Friday, Pelosi told reporters that she wasn’t feeling any political pressure, “except to stay firm.” Given the level of animosity toward Trump among Democratic voters, the new Speaker was surely being honest.
There appears to be more unease on the G.O.P. side. Earlier this week, three moderate Republicans called on the White House to reopen key agencies: Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee; Susan Collins, of Maine; and Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska. On Friday, two more Republican senators—Rob Portman, of Ohio, and Jerry Moran, of Kansas—introduced a bill that would couple funding for border security, including a barrier of some sort, with an agreement to maintain the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for current recipients.
Since this bill doesn’t include a path to permanent citizenship for Dreamers, it is unlikely to pick up much, if any, Democratic support, and it wasn’t immediately clear whether the White House would support it either. But the initiative from Portman and Moran was the latest indication that many Republicans want to end the shutdown soon, and without creating a constitutional crisis. Earlier in the week, Portman said he hoped that Trump “doesn’t go the national-emergency route.” Mitt Romney said something similar. Even Cornyn said that it would only create more complications.
Despite his statement on Friday, Trump may well decide to go ahead with a declaration anyway. His decision will be based not on any regard for the division of powers—he doesn’t have any—but on what he believes will leave him in the most secure position as Washington prepares for the onslaught of Democratic-controlled hearings and the release of the Mueller report. He is in survival mode. And he must know that his great diversion can’t last much longer.