Even as he roiled the political world with racist rants against nonwhite members of Congress and then the entire city of Baltimore, the president pocketed two wins last week — one legislative, one judicial — concerning his precious border-wall project.
The budget and debt-limit deal that cleared the House on Thursday and will almost certainly be ratified this week by the Senate, included an agreement to exclude policy riders (also known as “poison pills”) from the fiscal year 2020 appropriations bills that will implement it. Among them could have been language disallowing Trump’s transfer of unutilized military construction funds to the border wall to supplement congressionally appropriated dollars, subsequent to his controversial “national emergency declaration” in February. Republicans are treating this agreement as a major victory.
The very next day the Supreme Court gave Trump some good — if a bit tentative — news by granting an “emergency” administration appeal to kill a lower-court injunction that had halted transfers of Pentagon money to the border-wall project, pending litigation over its constitutionality. The Court’s conservative five-justice majority awarded this relief with little comment, other than a suggestion that the challengers to the transfer (a coalition of environmental and community groups) might not have an adequate claim, signaling that the same five justices will probably rule in Trump’s favor if the case comes back up to SCOTUS on the merits. In the meantime, though, the administration is free to obligate the Pentagon funds and get construction contracts signed. An effort by Justice Stephen Breyer to forge a compromise allowing contracts to be signed but maintaining a freeze on actual construction went nowhere. And POTUS was delighted:
Trump’s border-wall fantasies are still limited by what he can legally transfer, plus the sums Congress makes available. And the budget deal does not — repeat, does not — rule out a fight in September over border-wall appropriation levels, which is what led to the government shutdown last winter and then the emergency declaration as a Trumpian work-around. Politico reports Trump is feeling surly about congressional resistance to robust border-wall funding. So it’s possible that when the Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill reaches a critical stage in Congress this fall, the president could still provoke a partisan fight and even trigger another partial government shutdown if a resolution isn’t reached by the end of the current fiscal year, on September 30. It may all depend on whether he decides “the base” wants more sound and fury over the border wall. And Trump could try to link DHS appropriations to his related demands for restrictions on asylum opportunities and reduced legal immigration.
So, as is often the case, Trump can choose to be pleased with his progress toward achieving his nativist goals, or plunge Washington and the country into a new crisis that dwarfs anything actually happening on the border. Anyone confidently predicting what he will do is braver, or maybe more foolhardy, than I am.