WASHINGTON — President Trump reportedly backed off his demand that Congress include a down payment for a wall spanning the entire U.S.-Mexico border in a crucial spending bill that must pass by Friday night to keep the government funded.
Republican lawmakers have urged the president to focus on border security in general instead of the wall, which Democrats have called a poison pill that would cause them to reject the bill and shut down the government.
Trump told a group of conservative reporters he invited to the White House on Monday that he was open to getting funding for the wall in September when Congress debates the 2018 budget, the Associated Press reported. This is a sharp reversal from his position over the weekend and early Monday, when he doubled down on his demand for the wall. Trump tweeted repeatedly that the wall is necessary to stop the flow of drugs into the United States.
“If the wall is not built, which it will be, the drug situation will NEVER be fixed the way it should be!” Trump exclaimed Monday, adding: “#BuildTheWall.”
On Tuesday morning, the president claimed he had not changed his position on the wall as the “fake media” was claiming, but he didn’t specify whether he still believed he would get the funds in this week’s spending bill, which increasingly looks like a political impossibility.
The president may have realized that with Democrats ready to shut down the government over the wall and many lawmakers in his own party skeptical of it, there was little chance of reaching a deal on his signature campaign promise before the Friday night deadline. Some critics noted that Trump had long promised that Mexico — and not the U.S. — would pay for the wall’s construction.
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., praised Trump in a statement for taking the wall “off the table.” He had earlier called the demand a “monkey wrench” the president had thrown into sensitive negotiations between the parties over a series of spending bills to keep the government funded for the next five months.
But it’s possible the president will find a way to declare victory even if his call for a wall goes unanswered by Congress. Several Republican senators urged the president to think of the “big, beautiful wall” he promised on the campaign trail as symbolic of border security in general. That way, the president could declare any increase in border spending in the spending bill a victory, right as his presidency passes the symbolic 100-day mark on Friday.
“Border walls and fences are part of an overall plan, but there will never be a 2,200-mile wall built. Period,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters Monday evening. “I think [the wall] has become symbolic for better border security. So it’s a code word for better border security.”
Graham said the president would still be in “good shape” if he gets funding for border security in the spending bill that’s not specifically for a wall.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., also pushed for interpreting “border wall” as border security in general. “I know it’s being generally referred to as a border wall, but I think it’s the efforts to make sure that Border Patrol can have adequate funding for the people, technology and infrastructure they think they need to secure [the border],” Tillis said. “I think we can be less prescriptive about exactly what the structure looks like and more focused on the fact that we need to secure the border.”
Both House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Schumer have signaled openness to funding border security in the spending bill as long as it doesn’t go to construction of a wall or the “deportation force” Trump mentioned during the campaign. The Democrats could theoretically agree to funds for more surveillance technology on the border, or to hire and train more border patrol agents. But it’s harder to imagine them supporting an increase in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, since they enforce immigration laws internally in the United States and not at the borders.
Meanwhile, one of the president’s staunchest defenders in Congress defended the delay of the president’s campaign promise, urging Americans to be patient.
“He said we would build a wall and Mexico would pay for it, … but he never said when,” Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said Monday night on Fox Business. “Some things just take time and don’t occur real quick. I think that’s the way with the wall.”
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