Wait here for a second while I jump in my time machine and visit a Trump 2016 rally. I want to poll the people in the audience wearing MAGA hats on whether they thought they were a voting for a guy who, through sheer force of alpha-male will and populist resolve, would make those pipsqueaks in Mexico City cough up $25 billion or else. That cuck Obama would never issue Mexico an ultimatum to pay for immigration enforcement up front. The whole point of electing Trump was that he’d have the balls to do so.

Okay, I’m back. Ninety-seven percent.

No, no, I kid. It wouldn’t have been that high but it sure wouldn’t have been zero either. As with all things Trump, his rhetoric on this subject has been all over the place. It’s true that even during the campaign he was imagining indirect forms of payment from Mexico, not some big Publisher’s Clearing House ceremony where the president of Mexico presents him with a giant check. In April 2016, a month before he clinched the nomination, he floated the idea of seizing remittances sent from Mexican workers in the U.S. to family back home as a way to fund the wall. By October 2016, a few weeks before Election Day, he was talking explicitly about U.S. taxpayers funding the wall and then being reimbursed by Mexico. It’s simply not the case that Trump consistently floated the Publisher’s Clearing House scenario on the trail three years ago, no matter what his fans or his critics might have been led to believe.

But did he ever float it? Oh yeah. On his campaign’s farking website, in fact, as Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs remembered today:

Does Mexico want those remittances to keep flowing? Then they’d better cut one of those giant checks and make a “one-time payment of $5-10 billion” to get the wall started.

WaPo’s Philip Bump went through dozens of Trump soundbites to track how he imagined Mexico would be paying for the wall starting in 2015 on the trail and continuing to the present day. The striking thing about all of them, and very true to form, is how vague he always is. He never gets into details — and why would he? Explaining the details would have been inconvenient for him and irrelevant to his supporters. He got elected as a “Green Lantern” figure, a superhero whose bravado and alleged negotiating talents would allow him to bust through the usual D.C. nonsense. To ask for details would have been to miss the point; he’d get the wall done by imposing his will, end of story. And even if he didn’t, the fact that he insisted repeatedly that Mexico would pay was at least evidence of resolve about the border that the rest of the party lacked. He’d try to build a wall and make Mexico pay, unlike Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio and everyone else on stage at the debates. At least he was thinking the right way.

The fact that he now resorts to claiming that Mexico will somehow pay for the wall via the USMCA, of all things, is the closest we’ll ever come to him admitting that they’re not paying for it. No one knows what he means by that; even if there was some payment mechanism in the deal, it’s not as if the USMCA reworked NAFTA so dramatically that suddenly $25 billion from Mexico has become available to the U.S. The deal was a modest reform. He continues to stick to this refrain of Mexico paying for it, I think, because to admit they won’t would be to admit that he’s not a superhero after all. Better to pretend otherwise with reelection looming, even if his voters are forced to pretend too.