WASHINGTON – President Trump climbed up to the rostrum in the House chamber Tuesday night, believing he could convince Democratic leaders to give him the $5.7 billion to build his wall along the Mexico-U.S. border.
His State of the Union speech was thickly layered with pleas for bipartisan unity, but they came across as phony as a $3 bill.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sat behind him with a stone-faced expression that said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
For the past two years, Democratic leaders had been pummeled by Trump with an assortment of name-calling, while they made it clear the money request was a non-starter. He had threatened Democrats, slapped his hand on the table, and walked out of a negotiating session, believing this was the way to get things done. It wasn’t.
Trump thought Pelosi was a lightweight and ordered a partial government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history, to see who would blink first.
But in the end, as polls showed that Americans didn’t like Trump’s tough-guy tactics, and as the shutdown hurt the economy, he grudgingly caved in, still warning that he could reignite the shutdown, or declare a national crisis on the border and use existing budget funds in the Defense Department to build his wall.
The U.S. Constitution declares that only Congress can appropriate public funds, but Trump said he would ignore that and go ahead on his own -- a risky, undemocratic play that would end up in the federal courts, certainly for weeks or months.
Compare Trump’s bullying style with President Ronald Reagan’s personal negotiating approach in 1981, when he and Democratic House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill would get together at the White House in the afternoon over a beer.
Reagan needed to get his tax cuts passed, and O’Neill wasn’t budging. But the two of them continued talking as the president’s men lobbied conservative Democrats like Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, among others, and Reagan got his tax cuts without a cross word between them.
As for Trump’s SOTU speech, it was a lot of sound and fury held together by a grab bag of exaggerated facts and dubious economic figures.
Take, for example, Trump’s statement that “Wages are rising at the fastest pace in decades.”
“Wages rose 3.1 percent from December 2017 to December 2018, according to the Labor Department,” says Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post’s Fact Checker.
But, he adds, when that figure is adjusted for inflation, “wages for all workers grew 1.3 percent from December 2017 to December 2018, making the increase only the largest since August 2016,” Kessler reports.
But how about the whopper Trump told about the tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese goods, stating that “now our Treasury is receiving billions of dollars.”
“But the exporters do not pay the tariffs; it is the importer, who in turn passes it on to consumers,” Kessler says. He adds that “a study by the Council on Foreign Relations estimated that 115 percent of the money raised from tariffs is being used by the administration to aid farmers hurt by tariffs, so it’s a net loser.”
Then Trump declared, as he has many times before, that “tens of thousands of innocent Americans are killed by lethal drugs that cross our border and flood into our cities – including meth, heroin, cocaine and fentanyl.”
It is true that most drugs “come into the United States across the southern border with Mexico,” writes Kessler. “But a wall would not necessarily stanch the flow, as much of these drugs are smuggled through legal points of entry or underground tunnels.”
Trump further declared that “The lawless state of our southern border is a threat to the safety, security and financial well-being of all Americans.”
But by “any available measure, there is no new security crisis at the border,” Kessler says.
“Apprehensions of people trying to cross the southern border ... have been in decline since” 2000, he reports.
That decline “is partly because of technology upgrades; tougher penalties in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks; a decline in migration rates from Mexico; and a sharp increase in the number of Border Patrol officers.”
That $5.7 billion Trump wants to build his wall can be better spent on far more important problems.
Donald Lambro has been covering Washington politics for more than 50 years as a reporter, editor and commentator.