Just how important is the border wall to Donald Trump’s prospects for a second term? So important, according to the Washington Post’s sources, that he’s prepared to bulldoze practically everything to get it built by next fall. That includes private property rights, environmental regulation, and even the law — and he’s promised to use his pardon power to assure aides on the latter:
President Trump is so eager to complete hundreds of miles of border fence ahead of the 2020 presidential election that he has directed aides to fast-track billions of dollars’ worth of construction contracts, aggressively seize private land and disregard environmental rules, according to current and former officials involved with the project. …
Trump has repeatedly promised to complete 500 miles of fencing by the time voters go to the polls in November 2020, stirring chants of “Finish the Wall!” at his political rallies as he pushes for tighter border controls. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has completed just about 60 miles of “replacement” barrier during the first 2½ years of Trump’s presidency, all of it in areas that previously had border infrastructure.
The president has told senior aides that a failure to deliver on the signature promise of his 2016 campaign would be a letdown to his supporters and an embarrassing defeat. With the election 14 months away and hundreds of miles of fencing plans still in blueprint form, Trump has held regular White House meetings for progress updates and to hasten the pace, according to several people involved in the discussions.
When aides have suggested that some orders are illegal or unworkable, Trump has suggested he would pardon the officials if they would just go ahead, aides said. He has waved off worries about contracting procedures and the use of eminent domain, saying “take the land,” according to officials who attended the meetings.
The White House told the Post that Trump wasn’t being serious when mentioning pardons:
Asked for comment, a White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Trump is joking when he makes such statements about pardons.
Maaayyyybeee. If you worked for Trump and sat in meetings where he wanted to push the limits of executive power, would you take comments about pardons as a joke? Or as an incentive? I know which way I’d be leaning, especially when a Democrat-controlled House has already turned into a subpoena machine in an effort to find impeachable offenses. As tough as it may be to believe, “jokes” about seizing land and breaking the law to get someone re-elected likely don’t register as a laugh riot to those at whose legal expense those actions would come.
Trump denied it entirely on Twitter later in the day, calling it “fake news”:
Another totally Fake story in the Amazon Washington Post (lobbyist) which states that if my Aides broke the law to build the Wall (which is going up rapidly), I would give them a Pardon. This was made up by the Washington Post only in order to demean and disparage – FAKE NEWS!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 28, 2019
The White House didn’t seem to think it was “fake news” with their “joking” explanation.
On eminent domain, Trump clearly isn’t joking at all. Trump has long been a fan of the mechanism to transfer property from one private entity to another, let alone for its more legitimate use for public infrastructure. His endorsement of the Kelo decision was probably the first rude shock for conservatives in the 2015-16 primary season about Trump’s approach to traditional conservatism, although not the last. This involves public use, a much more supportable exercise of eminent domain in principle, although the landowners on the border probably won’t appreciate the nuance.
Trump’s right in that he needs to deliver more on his wall by 2020, although how much more is debatable. If he can show progress in the face of unbending opposition from Democrats, that might be an argument for another term to finish the job. On that score, the Pentagon is helping out by saving enough money on construction costs to produce a border-wall surplus of sorts:
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has approved an additional 20 miles of 30-foot high barriers for the southern border, a section of wall that is being paid for by previously repurposed Pentagon funds. …
While then-acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan had earlier approved some 135 miles of fencing requested by the Department of Homeland Security in the Yuma, El Paso and Tucson sectors, the cost of constructing that section of the border wall was less than originally anticipated, freeing up funds to support the additional 20 miles approved Monday.
Not only is Trump making progress, he can claim, but he’s bringing in the project under budget. That might not be terribly satisfactory to the voters demanding the border wall, but it shows Trump is still committed to it. And in a general election, Trump will have the advantage of being the only candidate committed to it in any way.
There is one other dynamic to incompletion that might be helpful to Trump. If he builds it before the election, it takes the issue off the table with those voters. Democrats are highly unlikely to tear it down after it goes up, especially if it does reduce or eliminate human trafficking across the border. With a border wall up, some on the right might be less motivated to defend Trump at the ballot box. If it’s not complete, however, they will vote for Trump to get the job finished. Perhaps Trump ought to hold off on the Get Out of Jail Free cards for a while.