Donald Trump is displeased by the number of Central American asylum seekers amassing at our nation’s southern border. To stem this tide of migrants (which includes parents seeking to reclaim the children that our government kidnapped), the president has vowed to cut off aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and then shutter the U.S.-Mexico border, freezing legal trade and migration between the two countries.
Most observers have (charitably) assumed that this is a bluff. The president might see political convenience in pretending that every country to our south is a totalitarian police state, which could therefore easily prevent its residents from moving north, if only it had the will. But he is not dumb enough to genuinely believe that this is the case.
Deep down, Trump must understand that migrants are fleeing the Northern Triangle because the area is beset by gang violence, poverty, and a dearth of social services and functioning school systems (conditions that the U.S. government bears no small amount of responsibility for) — and thus, that withdrawing hundreds of millions of dollars from the region is likely to increase migrant flows, not reduce them. And surely, the president recognizes that the strength of the U.S. economy is his No. 1 asset going into 2020 — and that few things would depreciate that asset more rapidly than an abrupt halt to virtually all trade between the U.S. and Mexico. Were Trump to close every port of entry on the southern border, the price of many consumer goods would rise almost immediately, while American farmers and automakers would see their exports and supply chains profoundly disrupted. Countless lawsuits would ensue. Meanwhile, the reward for making these economic sacrifices would most likely be … higher levels of undocumented immigration. As the Washington Post reports:
Stephen Legomsky, professor emeritus at the Washington University School of Law and former chief counsel of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said closing the ports would likely end up in court because it would violate federal immigration laws.
Trump “cannot close every port on the border,” Legomsky said. “If he did so, he would effectively undermine the entire congressional scheme for who may enter the U.S. and who may not.”
Closing the border is also unlikely to stanch the influx of asylum seekers, he said, because federal law authorizes them to request protection once they step on U.S. soil. “If anything, closing the authorized points would just drive more traffic between the ports of entry where people can enter illegally,” he said.
Trump has threatened to freeze aid and shut the border before — and each time, he’s declined to follow through. Further, he’s demonstrated, repeatedly, that he is more than willing to make policy pronouncements that have no basis in reality. Just last week, he announced that he had saved federal funding for the Special Olympics (from his own White House’s fantasy budget, which Nancy Pelosi’s caucus never had the slightest intention of passing). So his tough talk about border closings and aid withdrawal should be taken neither seriously nor literally. Our president might be a hateful nihilist. But he’s not a gibbering fool.
Or, so one might think. The White House, for its part, insists that this is a far too generous interpretation of Trump’s actions — and that he is genuinely enough of a moron to use his own feet as target practice.
“It certainly isn’t a bluff,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said of Trump’s border closure plan on Fox News Sunday morning. “You can take the president seriously.” White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney echoed on ABC’s This Week, saying that it would take “something dramatic” to change his boss’s plans. “The president will do everything he can” to end the “humanitarian crisis” at our border, Mulvaney explained. “If closing the ports of entry means that, that’s exactly what he intends to do. We need border security and we’re going to do the best we can with what we have.”
It’s tempting to see this as another layer of kayfabe. And if you had to put money on whether Trump will go through with these plans, you’d probably bet against it. Or at least, that’s what you would do if you were the typical Wall Street investor; despite Trump’s emphatic promises to commit economic self-sabotage, major indexes were up sharply in early trading Monday.
But it’s worth remembering that we aren’t in John Kelly’s White House anymore. The “adults” (such as they were) have been evicted from the room. The president is no longer intimidated by the awesome powers of his office, and has been wielding them with blithe recklessness for some time now. Earlier this year, the president learned that he could shut down the federal government for over a month — and gain no policy concessions from the exercise — and see his approval rating quickly return to its long-run average. In recent weeks, Trump nullified the bedrock, postwar norm against recognizing the sovereignty of a conquering power over land acquired through invasion (thereby eviscerating his government’s rationale for opposing Putin’s annexation of Crimea). And, of course, the president is pushing forward with his efforts to unilaterally fund his border wall through an emergency declaration. For better or worse, in April 2019, “Trump would never do this because it would be stupid and self-defeating” isn’t a very persuasive argument.