On Thursday morning, hours after the Senate defied Donald Trump by passing a funding bill that didn't include the president's desired $5 billion for a wall along the southern border, he was online and ranting. Well, he's always online and ranting, but this time his rants were even more inscrutable than usual. Here are the tweets in question, a mere 11 minutes apart:
The second tweet is unusually on point for Trump. The "caravan" of migrants that he and his Republican allies spent the midterm season ginning up fear about was in fact effectively stopped from crossing the border—by force. Zooming out, there's evidence that illegal border crossings have significantly decreased since the early 2000s. "Border" is in fact "tight."
While Trump is undercutting his own case for the wall by acknowledging these realities, he's also changing what he means by "wall" in the first tweet. The steel slats he's talking about sound a lot like the fencing approved during the George W. Bush administration, but Trump has previously said that the wall isn't the same thing as a fence. Of course, he hasn't been consistent in what the word "wall" might mean, and many of his Republican supporters may think he's just talking about enhanced border security.
But if what Trump really means is just better border security, why has he made so much of a stink about a literal wall, repeatedly threatening to shut down the government over funding it? Does he actually secretly agree with Democrats who say that they want to make the border secure, but that that doesn't mean—much less require—a wall?
What's becoming clear is that Trump never really had any concrete idea himself about what a wall would look like, let alone how Mexico would pay for it—another campaign promise that has now morphed confusingly into Mexico is paying for the wall via a new North American trade deal. The wall is, and has always been, a rhetorical device that allows Trump to claim his opponents care less about border security than he does.
If Democrats suddenly turned around and said OK to a wall, Trump would insist that their wall was insufficient, because what he really wants is a way to call them weak—in this case, on immigration, in other cases, on terrorism. In fact, Democratic leaders reportedly did offer to fund Trump's wall early this year in exchange for protections for some undocumented immigrants, and the White House turned them down. (Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer then took that offer off the table.)
Of course, now that Trump is president, he has to claim that he in fact secured the previously lawless border or else admit failure. So the border is at once safe and dangerously porous without a wall, which could also be a fence, or not even a physical object. The wall has been inside Trump's mind all along. That's where it will stay.
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