Last week I wrote about the criminal stupidity of Trump’s blackmail regarding the “big beautiful wall” that, um, Mexico was supposed to pay for. Shutting down the federal government over a pointless demand like this one is indefensible at best, and some might argue is itself an impeachable offense insofar as it violates his oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” At nineteen days and counting, this is already the second longest shutdown in US history, and Trump—bluffing or not—has hyperbolically threatened to keep it going for “months or even years.”
Is America great again yet?
From the start the assumption was that this standoff, like previous shutdowns, would eventually end with some sort of negotiated solution. But we are now in a position where no such thing seems possible.
Trump has no leverage with which to negotiate while the Democrats have absolutely no reason to give an inch. (As well they shouldn’t, or—quite obviously—risk encouraging this kind of presidential terrorism in future standoffs.) As we have seen time and time again, the man who sold himself as the master dealmaker is, in fact, one of the worst negotiators ever seen in American public life.
Trump openly confessed to Chuck Schumer what all savvy political observers already knew: he has painted himself into a corner, except that in this case, he can’t just wait for the paint to dry, because it never will. So let’s turn to a better metaphor: he has clambered out onto a high tree limb, and his only plan is to wave a ripsaw and threaten to cut the limb off.
Have a nice fall, Don.
Trump knows that he cannot give in on the wall or the shutdown without paying a steep political price. (The ridicule of Ann Coulter! The contempt of his base! Oh, the shame!) Of course, even that argument is questionable. His base infamously believes anything he says. Pelosi and Schumer could beat Trump like a red-headed stepchild in this standoff and he could still emerge declaring victory and be greeted with an amen chorus from his myrmidons. The right wing media might be more critical, but does that matter?
Apparently it does to Donald, exposing the quivering fear with which he regards the very people who, supposedly, are in his thrall. As someone once said, “I’m not the puppet, you’re the puppet.”
Ironically, immigration hardliners dislike the wall almost as much as its opponents. Despite their venal and un-American animus to immigrants legal and otherwise, the professional xenophobes know the wall is no real solution to their dark nativist desires, and fear that in his pointless fixation on it and his pathological fear of humiliation, Trump will trade away chits that they do care about, such as an extension of DACA, in order to claim a victory in this battle, however moronic.
PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE
It should not come as a shock to anyone that neither Trump nor anyone with any influence in his administration had any idea what a shutdown would entail. So it goes in the ignoracracy. As a result, they are scrambling to deal with the massive repercussions of this nightmare that they concocted entirely on their own and for no good reason. Time is on Nancy Pelosi’s side, and Trump has no attractive options available to him. Accordingly, he is looking increasingly desperate.
A case in point is the string of lies and non sequiturs that constituted his nationally televised address on the matter, its hysterical fearmongering at odds with the lifeless monotone in which he delivered it. Trump’s skills as a bully and carnival barker do him no good when reading from a teleprompter and trying to sound “presidential.”
(As James Fallows and many others pointed out,the fact that the networks carried the speech at all was highly questionable, especially given that in 2014 all of the Big Three networks declined to carry a speech by President Obama—on the topic of immigration, no less—on the grounds that it was “too political.” It would be easy to say that the media has yet to learn how to deprive this fire of oxygen, but that misses the point completely. As Trump himself would readily brag, he is a ratings bonanza, the same way any natural disaster would be. )
In my view, the speech did the White House no real good in terms of convincing anyone other than those who already agreed with its position. Sadly, the same is true of the response by Pelosi and Schumer, who were eminently more reasonable and fact-based, but unlikely to have changed many minds either. Such is tribalism in America today.
Assuming the next few days bring no dramatic and unforeseen shifts in the standoff, we can therefore look for Trump to resort to the next desperate maneuver, one which he has already floated: the idea of declaring a “national emergency.” In this gambit, he would circumvent both the will of the people (polls show that roughly 60% of Americans oppose the wall) and Congress (where Trump can’t even get enough votes from his own party) in order to carry on his pet project by means of executive fiat. In addition to its pragmatic appeal as a way out of his dilemma, it’s the kind of autocratic option Donald instinctively gravitates to anyway.
Yet many informed people have scoffed at the idea that Trump might take this drastic step.
We all know that nothing is beyond the pale for Trump, that he is perfectly willing to do extreme and indefensible things that no previous President in modern times would have contemplated, or gotten away with. Witness the firing of the FBI director, the installation of woefully unqualified acting Cabinet officers, the refusal to release his tax returns, and the impulsive withdrawal of US forces without even bothering to consult the Pentagon, to name just a few. These measures may ultimately be self-destructive, but that does not make them any less norm-breaking.
So there is no reason to think he won’t declare a recklessly unjustified national emergency for his own self-aggrandizing ends. Especially when his only other option is humiliating defeat.
Needless to say, the only “crisis” is one of Trump’s own making, which—unfortunately for him—a plurality of Americans seem to recognize. (Not counting the broader crisis of his residency in the White House in the first place.)
But none of that matters.
The potential for what an out-of-control, criminal president might do is chilling. But there is also a great deal of skepticism about whether he would be able to get away with declaring such an emergency. Regardless, my surmise is that Trump will absolutely play this card, with his characteristic disregard for the consequences, even if it poses great risk to him.
Which it does.
STATE OF EMERGENCY
What I suspect will happen is as follows:
With victory impossible and no compromise that allows him to save face, Trump will cave on the shutdown while portraying his capitulation as heroism.
He will continue to blame the Democrats but claim that he is personally re-opening the government in order to alleviate the pain of the federal workforce and the country at large, even though he is the one who inflicted that pain.
Per above, his disciples will cheer. The GOP will go along with the farce and the right wing media will fall in line and spread the lie.
At the same time, Trump will declare a national emergency and try to use federal troops or other resources to build the wall, diverting funds from other federal resources in the process, improperly if not outright illegally.
This he will depict as a clever maneuver that enables him to go around the “obstructionist” Democrats and deliver on his signature campaign promise despite the triple-thick canopy of bureaucratic red tape, while simultaneously “saving” the country from the Democrat-driven shutdown. (Those commie bastards!) His base will also eat that up, ignoring its fundamental dishonesty and anti-democratic nature.
That declaration of a national emergency will in turn trigger an avalanche of lawsuits and other countermeasures challenging his right to take such action. A gobsmacking legal shitshow will ensue, contributing to what is already a slow-motion constitutional crisis in progress.
I want to be very clear. I am not at all sure the courts will prevent Trump from carrying out such an order, however absurd. They might not. I was quite confident that the Supreme Court—like several lower courts before it—would shoot down Trump’s ridiculous and patently unconstitutional Muslim ban. Instead, five right-leaning justices tied themselves in knots trying to explain why it wasn’t a ban based on religion at all, even as Trump repeatedly insisted it was.
So Trump may prevail in this “national emergency” ruse as well. But it won’t be pretty. And regardless of outcome, the battle could drag on for months.
Ironically, the border crisis will be yet another maelstrom bedeviling this administration, along with the Mueller probe, the emoluments case, investigations by the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York and the New York State Attorney General, and the coming wave of new investigations by the angry, subpoena-wielding Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. None of which, it goes without saying, is good for Team Trump.
Like they say on the tee-vee, winter is coming.