Many of the tales of controversy to emerge from the Trump administration have been abstract, or complicated, or murky. Whenever anyone warns about destruction of “norms,” the conversation quickly becomes speculative—the harms are theoretical, vague, and in the future.
This makes new Washington Post reporting about President Donald Trump’s border wall especially valuable. The Post writes about how Trump has repeatedly pressured the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security to award a contract for building a wall at the southern U.S. border to a North Dakota company headed by a leading Republican donor.
The story demonstrates the shortcomings of Trump’s attempt to bring private-sector techniques into government. It shows his tendency toward cronyism, his failures as a negotiator, and the ease with which a fairly primitive attention campaign can sway him. At heart, though, what it really exemplifies is Trump’s insistence on placing performative gestures over actual efficacy. And it is a concrete example—almost literally—of how the president’s violations of norms weaken the country and waste taxpayer money.
The Post reports:
In phone calls, White House meetings and conversations aboard Air Force One during the past several months, Trump has aggressively pushed Dickinson, N.D.-based Fisher Industries to Department of Homeland Security leaders and Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the commanding general of the Army Corps, according to the administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal discussions.
It may be a not-very-subtle sign of the frustration in the Army that the news leaked to the Post the same day that Semonite was called to the White House and Trump once again pressed him.*
The Trump administration will hire conservative firebrand and former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli II to coordinate immigration policy at the Department of Homeland Security, three administration officials said Tuesday.
Cuccinelli will work at DHS in a senior role and will report to acting DHS secretary Kevin McAleenan, while also providing regular briefings to President Trump at the White House, according two officials briefed on the appointment.
.. Cuccinelli, who has been hawkish on immigration policy during television appearances that also praise Trump, appears to fulfill the president’s desire to have a forceful personality and a loyalist at the highest levels of DHS. But his arrival risks new instability at the agency, coming six weeks after Trump ousted Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and replaced her with McAleenan, a long-serving official who was confirmed by the Senate last year as commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and who is one of the few administration figures who retains a favorable reputation with lawmakers from both parties.
Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank whose immigration-reduction agenda has had significant influence in the White House, called Cuccinelli “an unusual choice.”
“He doesn’t have any immigration experience, but he does have law enforcement experience,” said Krikorian, who said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the appointment would make a difference. The crucial factor, he predicted, would be access to the White House.
“If he does not answer directly to the president, he’s not likely to be able to get much done,” he said.
.. The White House offered the job to Cuccinelli after it was turned down by Tom Homan, the former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to two officials. Trump also soured weeks ago on Kris Kobach, the Kansas Republican favored by immigration restrictionist groups, according to one senior administration official.
.. “It is bad news for [McAleenan],” said one senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to provide candid views. “You have someone at the agency that the White House might have in mind to be the next DHS secretary.”
Another former department official predicted Cuccinelli’s lack of authority at the agency and distance from the White House would leave him in a weak position from the outset.
“Putting an immigration czar at DHS is a total waste,” the person said.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to inquiries about Cuccinelli’s role. Cuccinelli, who was at the White House on Monday, could not be reached for comment. His expected hiring was first reported by the New York Times.
If the White House is grooming him as a possible replacement for McAleenan, he would face a difficult path to confirmation.
Cuccinelli is deeply disliked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has vowed to block Cuccinelli from any Senate-confirmed post for leading efforts in 2014 backing insurgent candidates that hurt the Senate GOP majority, McConnell advisers said.
Two years ago, Cuccinelli signed a letter drafted by GOP activists calling on McConnell to step down.
When Cuccinelli’s name surfaced last month as a potential Nielsen replacement, McConnell told reporters he’d conveyed his unease to the White House. “I have expressed my, shall I say, lack of enthusiasm for one of them . . . Ken Cuccinelli,” McConnell said.
The Virginia conservative, who has a long record of combative television appearances, is even less popular with Democrats. “This is absurd and outrageous,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) wrote on Twitter. “He doesn’t deserve a taxpayer-funded salary.”
Others more supportive of the move noted that the DHS secretary’s role is challenging enough when there isn’t a migration crisis — and with hurricane season approaching, McAleenan could benefit from a strong personality fully devoted to the border.
In April, more than 100,000 migrants were taken into custody along the U.S.-Mexico border for the second consecutive month, and the numbers in May are on pace to go even higher. McAleenan warned in late March that U.S. agents and infrastructure at the border had hit a “breaking point,” and since then the situation has worsened, leaving holding cells so overcrowded that DHS officials have been transferring migrants out of South Texas by aircraft simply to make room for ever-growing numbers of new arrivals.
Cuccinelli has been a vocal advocate for Trump’s proposed border wall and other measures popular with hard-liners. He has backed constitutional changes to restrict birthright citizenship, urged lawsuits against employers who hire undocumented immigrants and at one point supported denying immigrant workers — including those in the country lawfully — from collecting unemployment benefits if they are fired for not speaking English on the job.
His appointment to DHS has others in the administration worried there will be too many players fighting to establish control over an immigration agenda, with White House adviser Stephen Miller already chafing officials at DHS.
.. One White House adviser said Cuccinelli would advocate for the White House’s aggressive position at the agency. Miller has argued to Trump that others within DHS are trying to stall him.
McAleenan last week pushed back at an attempt by Miller to have Trump’s pick to lead ICE installed at CBP instead. In a tense White House meeting Thursday, McAleenan said he needed control over DHS to remain in his job, administration officials said.
The animus between Cuccinelli and Senate Republicans stems from his leadership of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which organized anti-incumbent efforts, and from his role at the 2016 Republican convention, when he derided “petty, tyrannical rules” and threw his ID badge on the floor in protest of Trump’s nomination. He was a strong supporter of the presidential bid by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has since become one of Trump’s most ardent defenders.
Another senior administration official who welcomed the appointment said there was an acute need for someone to be an immigration policy field marshal.
.. “The president’s frustration is not directed at DHS alone,” the official said. “It’s DOJ, DOD, State. So this job will ensure closer coordination at a senior level, and it’s an effort to acknowledge you need someone who can have conversations with department heads about policies and drive them to the same place.”
But the official also acknowledged that Cuccinelli’s appointment risked undercutting McAleenan at a time when the acting secretary has been making inroads with lawmakers, including Democrats who see him as a neutral law enforcement official rather than a White House political operative.
“I don’t see how this appointment makes things better on the Hill,” the official said.
The Trump administration proposed a $4.7 trillion budget that would sharply reduce spending on safety-net programs, while effectively exempting the Pentagon from strict spending caps set to take effect in fiscal year 2020.
The president’s plan would widen the federal budget deficit to $1.1 trillion in the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, and would propose to eliminate the deficit by 2034, in part by assuming the economy grows much faster than many independent forecasters expect.
The White House budget document proposed $2.7 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade, including $1.9 trillion in cuts to mandatory spending programs, a senior administration official said Monday. The official said the president’s budget proposes more spending cuts over the next 10 years than any administration in history.
The budget would reduce the overall level of nondefense spending by 5% next year below current federal spending caps, a nearly $30 billion reduction. The budget would increase military spending by 5%, to $750 billion from $716 billion in fiscal year 2019.
.. The budget proposes to cut $22 billion from safety-net programs next year—$327 billion over the next decade—and proposes new work requirements for recipients of food stamps, Medicaid and federal housing programs, the senior administration official said... The budget assumes the extension of the individual- and estate-tax cuts slated to expire at the end of 2025, and it proposes repealing some tax incentives for alternative energy, including a tax credit for plug-in electric cars.It requests $8.6 billion for new barriers along the southern U.S. border, including $5 billion for the Department of Homeland Security and $3.6 billion for the Defense Department’s military-construction budget. The president’s blueprint would also provide additional funding to boost manpower at Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, and it proposes policy changes to end so-called sanctuary cities.
The plan would also increase investments in national defense, such as artificial intelligence and hypersonic weapons, and provide more than $80 billion for veterans health care, a 10% increase from fiscal year 2019, according to the White House budget office.
Infrastructure won’t happen until the Democrats regain control.
Donald Trump isn’t the first president, or even the first Republican president, who has sought to define his legacy in part with a big construction project. Abraham Lincoln signed legislation providing the land grants and financing that created the transcontinental railroad. Theodore Roosevelt built the Panama Canal. Dwight Eisenhower built the interstate highway system.
But Trump’s wall is different, and not just because it probably won’t actually get built. Previous big construction projects were about bringing people together and making them more productive. The wall is about division — not just a barrier against outsiders, but an attempt to drive a wedge between Americans, too. It’s about fear, not the future.
Why isn’t Trump building anything? Surely he’s exactly the kind of politician likely to suffer from an edifice complex, a desire to see his name on big projects. Furthermore, during the 2016 campaign he didn’t just promise a wall, he also promised a major rebuilding of America’s infrastructure.
But month after month of inaction followed his inauguration. A year ago he again promised “the biggest and boldest infrastructure investment in American history.” Again, nothing happened.
Last month there was reportedly a White House meeting to game outa new infrastructure plan. This time they mean it. Really. Would this administration ever lie to you?
The interesting question is why Trump seems unwilling or unable to do anything about America’s crumbling roads, bridges, water supplies and so on. After all, polls show that a large majority of the public wants to see more infrastructure spending. Public investment is an issue on which Trump could get substantial Democratic support; it would lift the economy, and also help repair the public’s perception that the administration is chaotic and incompetent.
Yet everything points to two more years of occasional bombast about infrastructure, with no follow-up. Why the paralysis?
Some news analyses suggest that it’s about money, that big infrastructure spending would happen if only Republicans and Democrats could agree on how to pay for it. But this is being credulous. Remember, in 2017 the G.O.P. enacted a $2 trillion tax cutwith absolutely no pay-fors; the tax cut is completely failing to deliver the promised boost to private investment, but there is no sign of buyer’s remorse.
So Republicans don’t really care about using debt to pay for things they want. And Democrats, whose top policy wonks have been telling them that deficit fears are excessive, would surely support a program of debt-financed infrastructure spending.
President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to build a wall on the U.S. southern border comes after two years of political neglect of his signature campaign promise, lost amid competing priorities and divisions within his administration, according to current and former White House officials, lawmakers and congressional staffers.
Mr. Trump on Friday said the move would allow him to supplement the $1.38 billion allotted for border barriers in the spending package approved by Congress—far short of the $5.7 billion Mr. Trump wanted. “We’re talking about an invasion of our country,” Mr. Trump said speaking from the Rose Garden in urgent terms familiar during his campaign.Yet in the two years since Mr. Trump took office, there had been no single official appointed within his administration to champion the wall. A revolving cast handled negotiations with Congress over paying for it. And the picture of what, exactly, the wall should be kept shifting. In late 2017, Mr. Trump talked privately to his staff about limiting the length of new wall construction because such natural barriers as a “valley of snakes” on the border already deterred passage.
The wall’s reemergence as a top priority within the White House came after the Republican Party’s loss of the House in November’s midterm election, and after goading from conservative media kept Mr. Trump focused on the border wall, current and former White House officials said.
It wasn’t until December, as some government offices entered a 35-day shutdown amid the fight over wall funding, that Mr. Trump assembled a team of advisers devoted to getting it built. They turned out to be a divided group.
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, pushed for a broader deal with Democrats to provide protections for some immigrants living in the U.S. without permission, while Vice President Mike Pence sought to limit the scope of the negotiations. Mr. Kushner cautioned the president about issuing a national emergency order; Mick Mulvaney, newly installed as acting chief of staff, pressed for it.
Mr. Trump’s first-term wins had clear leaders: Former economic adviser Gary Cohn delivered on tax cuts. Former White House counsel Don McGahn shepherded two Supreme Court nominations onto the High Court, and Mr. Kushner is credited with pushing a criminal-justice overhaul that reduced prison sentences on some drug convictions.
The wall project had no such director. Last summer, a White House official seeking a senior aide in charge of the border wall was sent to Doug Fears, a deputy to national security adviser John Bolton. Mr. Fears, a rear admiral in the U.S. Coast Guard, is neither a senior administration official nor in charge of border-wall issues, a spokesman said.
By then, frustration was setting in with the president, and in August, he asked Mr. Mulvaney about declaring a national emergency. “You know, that makes a lot of sense,” Mr. Mulvaney told him. The then-budget director started working on plans, which were only finalized last week, according to a senior White House official.
As a candidate in 2016, Mr. Trump described building the wall as a simple job. He tied it to his identity as a builder, a career that dates to the 1960s when he joined his father’s real-estate company. As the author of “The Art of the Deal,” Mr. Trump put his reputation as a negotiator on the line.As Mr. Trump prepares for re-election—and for voters to scrutinize his record as president—he has adjusted his message. “If you think it’s easy with these people, it’s not easy,” Mr. Trump said, referring to Congress, during a rally last summer in West Virginia... Another early advocate of the wall was Stephen K. Bannon, the Trump campaign’s chief executive who became Mr. Trump’s top strategist and senior counselor. The promise to build a wall “and eventually make Mexico pay for it” was written on a dry erase board in Mr. Bannon’s West Wing office, competing for attention among other campaign promises. It was one of more than four dozen pledges on the white board, organized by policy area.
On another office wall, Mr. Bannon listed the goals for Mr. Trump’s first 100 days in office, listed on 36 pages of computer paper taped together. The legislative agenda included the “End Illegal Immigration Act,” proposed legislation that would have made the wall a priority. It was never introduced.
The project was made tougher without a supportive constituency in Washington to pressure lawmakers. Labor unions don’t view the border wall as a job stimulus, and business didn’t see clear benefits to the bottom line.
Mr. Kushner and Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative, also left some West Wing aides with the impression that the president should put the wall on hold while renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement... Messers. Kushner and Cohn later suggested outfitting the wall with solar panels, and possibly selling the energy to Mexico. The president loved the idea so much he adopted it as his own... Advisers suggested that Mexico would indirectly pay for the wall through a renegotiated Nafta. The revised trade deal, which hasn’t been approved by Congress, includes no language about a border wall.
In March, Congress completed a $1.3 trillion spending package, but included just $1.6 billion for a border barrier, with most of the money intended to replace existing fencing. It banned the money from being spent on concrete slabs or any other of the wall prototypes the White House was considering.
Upset there wasn’t more money for the wall, Mr. Trump threatened to veto it. At an emergency meeting at the White House with his staff and Republican leaders, Mr. Trump learned that the spending bill incorporated all of the border wall money that was requested in the White House budget proposal.
“Who the f— put that in my request?” Mr. Trump shouted.
Mr. Trump directed his fury at Marc Short, then his legislative affairs director, while John Kelly, the former chief of staff was silent. Mr. Kelly was the Department of Homeland Security secretary when the agency made the request for border funds the year before.
Mr. Mulvaney, who assembled the White House’s budget proposal, privately encouraged the president to veto it and suggested Mr. Trump blame then-House Speaker Paul Ryan, who should have sought more wall money.
Mr. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Mr. Trump they would push for more wall money in the next round of spending bills at the end of the year. During the fall, Mr. Trump was energized by crowds chanting “built the wall” during his many midterm-election rallies.
Soon after the November election, it became clear to the White House that lawmakers weren’t interested in a fight over border-wall money. Mr. Trump decided to carry out his threat to close what he could of the U.S. government.
During the shutdown last month, Mr. Trump complained to conservative allies that Mr. Ryan should have pushed harder for wall funds. Last weekend, the president complained about it again during a meeting with a Republican member of the committee that negotiated the latest deal.
“Mr. President,” the Republican lawmaker said, “we gave you everything you asked for.”