Trump: We may close the border if Congress doesn't fund the wall

What happens when you up the ante while the players are changing seats? That’s how Donald Trump started off his day, threatening to close the southern border if Congress doesn’t fund the wall. However, Congress has shut itself down and won’t open up again for a week, and then only under new management:

Congress effectively gave up Thursday on breaking the impasse over President Trump’s demands for border-wall funding, all but ensuring that the partial government shutdown will stretch into at least the start of the new year, when Democrats retake control of the House.

Trump retreated from public view, hurling insults at Democrats over Twitter, as the House and the Senate convened for just minutes before gaveling closed until next week. During the brief session in the House, Republicans shot down a Democratic attempt to vote on legislation to reopen the government.

The halls of the Capitol were largely vacant, and leaders’ offices were shuttered. There was no sign that negotiations were taking place. Instead, the two sides traded public recriminations.

The Senate is holding brief pro forma sessions until January 2nd, the day before Nancy Pelosi takes the gavel in the House. The lower chamber has no activity taking place at all, and it’s unclear if there’s enough for a quorum in DC. Perhaps if negotiations progressed at all, members could get called back to prepare for a vote, but the Washington Post report suggests that any such effort would have to cut through a great deal of skepticism before officials started booking flights.

The same might be true even if they’re back in town for the next session. The Republicans with whom they spoke said they’re not inclined to come back and vote on anything without a rock-solid guarantee from the White House that Trump would sign it. Democrats plan to introduce the bill on which Trump reneged when they take over on January 3rd, but the Senate has to pass the bill again. How many Republicans will vote for a bill that Trump will end up vetoing? Almost certainly not enough to sustain an override in either chamber, not with Trump publicly sticking to his guns on border-wall funding.

That brings us to today, when Trump threatened to shut down the border and trade with Mexico. Trump argued that the costs of keeping the border open far outweighed any economic benefits derived from its operation:

We will be forced to close the Southern Border entirely if the Obstructionist Democrats do not give us the money to finish the Wall & also change the ridiculous immigration laws that our Country is saddled with. Hard to believe there was a Congress & President who would approve!

….The United States looses soooo much money on Trade with Mexico under NAFTA, over 75 Billion Dollars a year (not including Drug Money which would be many times that amount), that I would consider closing the Southern Border a “profit making operation.” We build a Wall or…..

…..close the Southern Border. Bring our car industry back into the United States where it belongs. Go back to pre-NAFTA, before so many of our companies and jobs were so foolishly sent to Mexico. Either we build (finish) the Wall or we close the Border……

…..Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are doing nothing for the United States but taking our money. Word is that a new Caravan is forming in Honduras and they are doing nothing about it. We will be cutting off all aid to these 3 countries – taking advantage of U.S. for years!

There are a couple of aspects to this threat that look more like spite-nose-cutting. In the first place, the problem with the border is that it can’t be effectively shut down. If Trump orders the checkpoints closed, it will only incentivize more illegal crossings elsewhere in the places where the barriers don’t exist. Trump might want to order the military to close those gaps, but that has its own problems, both legally and logistically. If the wall existed now, it might be possible to make the argument above, but of course then it wouldn’t need to be made at all. (Also, closing the border would require more resources for DHS, which is part of the shutdown and is as-yet unfunded in this fiscal year.)

Next, Trump just negotiated a trade deal with Mexico and Canada to replace NAFTA, more prosaically called the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement. It’s not yet in effect — that’s one of the big tasks awaiting Nancy Pelosi — but abrogating NAFTA ahead of that might blow up Trump’s big trade win from this year. Furthermore, we get much of our imported oil through Mexico and Canada, which combined to provide us nearly 150 million barrels in September, the latest reporting period from the US Energy Information Administration. It’s almost twice as much as we got from OPEC nations combined (89.9 million barrels). That’s not just an economic consideration but also a strategic issue for the US.

Lastly, the threat to cut off aid to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala may be understandable but it’s also counterproductive in the long run. The US and Mexico just agreed to provide those countries with strategic aid to improve conditions and slow down the exodus in exchange for Mexico housing asylum applicants rather than allowing them into the US. Cutting off that aid would remove any incentive Mexico has to help Trump out by housing asylum applicants. The long-term solution to illegal immigration isn’t a wall (although it’s an effective short-term solution), it’s providing stability and prosperity to the nations of central America where most of the illegal immigrants originate.

In other words, Trump may be upping the ante, but it’s also more likely a bluff. Don’t expect Democrats to do much except call him on it.