Now that President Trump is declaring a national emergency to build a border wall, one question should be on the lips of every journalist, pundit and politician talking about this issue: If this is a real emergency, why did Trump wait more than two years to do anything about it?
This article was originally published at Salon
The New York Times frames the border wall story as “a two-month war of attrition,” but while there’s certainly been an escalation of debate in the past few months, that’s misleading. In truth, Trump has been making false claims about a dire situation on the border that required a wall for years now. He even kicked off his presidential campaign in 2015 with an infamous racist diatribe painting Mexicans as “rapists” who are “bringing drugs” and “bringing crime.” By early 2016, “build the wall” was a chant for the Trump voter base, and he rode this false, racist narrative about immigration and the border all the way to the White House.
After Trump took office in 2017, however, his claims that there was an emergency at the border were immediately belied by his actual behavior. Instead, he spent two years playing golf and tweeting and making no real effort to get the wall built, despite having Republicans in control of both houses of Congress and numerous opportunities to pass measures to fund the wall.
So what changed? Why has it not been an “emergency” for the past two years, but suddenly became one now?
Nothing about the actual situation at the border has changed. It’s as peaceful and low-crime as it has been for years, despite Trump’s innumerable false statements to the contrary. The number of people crossing the border illegally has been extremely low compared to past decades. Many illegal border crossings now, and perhaps most of them, are a direct result of the Trump administration plugging up the official ports of entry so people with a legal right to seek asylum can’t get in. Outside of some dreadful situations created by Trump himself — the family separation policy and capricious or confusing shifts on asylum policy, for instance — the situation at the border has remained the same since Trump got elected.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., recently pointed this out on Twitter:
Only one thing has changed: Last November, Democrats won a sweeping victory in the midterm elections, gaining 40 House seats and a clear majority. For Donald Trump, that’s the real emergency. Friday’s declaration isn’t really about a border wall. It’s about Trump rejecting the validity of the 2018 elections.
Trump spent the past few years praising dictators and sneering at legitimately elected world leaders. I’m sorry to say that wasn’t just trolling or idle bluster. He really is opposed to democracy and reacts to losing a free and fair election by seizing more power for himself and trying to undercut or invalidate the electoral process.
The timeline bears this out. Trump had multiple opportunities to pressure Republicans into passing a bill to fund his wall and while he occasionally made gestures towards that goal, he never did anything concrete to make it happen. Here are the highlights:
- January 2017: Trump signs an executive order calling for the wall, but the order is purely cosmetic and nothing is done to get the project funded.
- April 2017: Congress — again, under unified Republican control — declines to fund the wall. Trump makes some empty threats, but basically lets it go.
- January 2018: Congress offers Trump a genuine bipartisan deal that would have provided $25 billion to build the wall, in exchange for long-term protection for DACA recipients. Trump refuses to take the deal.
- March 2018: Trump makes some threatening noises about shutting down the government to get the wall. But when Congress sends him a spending deal with no wall money, he signs it.
- December 2018: After the midterms, with Democrats about to take control of the House, Trump suddenly decides to fight for wall funding. His opening gambit is a 35-day shutdown that begins, let us note, under Speaker Paul Ryan and the Republicans.
- February 2019: After spending two years doing nothing substantive to build a wall, and after being forced to capitulate twice — once to Nancy Pelosi on ending the shutdown, and then on a bipartisan budget deal he doesn’t like — Trump declares a “national emergency” to steal money from legitimate projects to fund wall construction.
Trump admitted during his Rose Garden speech on Friday that this isn’t really an emergency, saying, “I didn’t need to do this.”
He immediately followed that up with the baffling and blatantly false statement, “I just want to get it done faster, that’s all.”