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Finish the wall?

Trump’s new slogan shows that he doesn’t believe in the constitutional processes of governing


Terry H. Schwadron
February 17, 2019 10:59AM (UTC)
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Finish the Wall?

The job to add to 654 miles of existing barrier across the Southern border has barely gotten off the ground. Indeed, the government broke ground this week on six miles—right, six.

Yet, for political rally reasons or fantasy reasons or language magic, Trump is telling supporters like those at the El Paso rally this week that the job is already well underway. He told them that they needn’t pay much attention to the little drama being played out in the nation’s capital, where congressional conferees from both sides of the aisle were making clear that keeping 800,000 federal workers in the job was more important than making Trump’s campaign promises come true.

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As the president dithers about whether to sign a congressional bill embracing the conference agreement that he finds wholly inadequate to his wants, my concerns once again veer off from the border debate into a question about democracy: Does Trump believe in the constitutional processes for policy-making or not?

"It’s no longer about the wall, it’s about whether this president supports majority rule, the rule of law, checks and balances, the requirement to work towards the defense of the Constitution."

While you ponder that for a moment, please take a look — it’ll take you just a minute or two — at this brilliant graphic in The New York Times that captures the facts and figures in this continuing dispute.  In a few interactive strokes, you can see we have a border 1,954 miles long; as of January, there has been no new construction on walls, whether concrete or steel or see-through plastic, beyond the existing 654 miles of fencing of all type.

Before this year, Congress had approved 124 miles for new or replacement fencing work, and, of course, the eight border wall prototype in Arizona. Until this week, 40 miles had been started, with another 61 on their way. Now Congress proposes another 55 miles of fence.

Conclusion number one: Americans disagree about whether there is an “emergency” going on. Conclusion number two: Big words, small deeds from Homeland Security. Conclusion number three: “Finish the wall” as a governing principle. Sounds like a steaming pile of rusted steel thinking, by my lights.

Look, I’ll even go so far as to say I would have accepted it if the conferees had emerged from their deliberations saying that they had learned a lot more about actual, demonstrated need from the Customs and Border Patrol officers and Homeland officials whom they consulted. I wanted to believe in the worst way that our congressional folks, forced to stick their faces in actual fact, would come up with appropriate tools for the identified problem, sector by sector.

As in baseball, marriage and lots of other social activities, we accept the rules of the game when we agree to play. If you go out of the lines, you face being found in foul territory and must deal with penalties.

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All of which brings me back to the White House where we have watched, impatiently at times, for Donald Trump to actually negotiate rather than sitting there, one-notedly repeating the same arguments over and over, as if repetition represented problem-solving. Even when finally presented with the results that showed clearly that his arguments had failed, Trump now wants to monkey with the legislative effort. That’s outside of the rules, and someone like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ought to be calling “Foul.”

Trump may eventually sign the bill that emerges, but he’s more likely to send in instructions to change the outcome of a compromise. Good luck with that.

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My argument is no longer about the wall, it is about the question of whether this president supports the basics of democracy — majority rule, the rule of law, checks and balances even when they run against your policy, the requirement to work towards the defense of the Constitution.

When the president sends Chief of Staff Mike Mulvaney, who is also still the budget chief, to look for spare billions to take away from the Californias and Puerto Ricos to pay for a non-emergency wall, that is outside the existing rules, too. And some court is going to tell him so in short order.

So is an emergency declaration at the border when there is no emergency— legally, morally, in numbers, spirit or safety. Trump wants to claim border crossings are down—which they are over a decade ago—at the same time, he spreads the fear of imminent disaster at the hands of marauding mobs of illegal arrivals, which he does repeatedly.

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Even as Trump goes on and on about stopping drug traffic with rural wars, the Brooklyn jury hearing the El Chapo case put the kibosh on a drug empire that was deploying submarines, planes, tunnels and vast trucking raids right through the heart of protected ports of entry. At least Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), that engaging jokester, could quip that the seized assets of the Sinaloa cartel could pay for a wall multiple times over.

A king would give Congress the back of his hand in a policy dispute, and simply do what he wanted. An authoritarian leader like those that Trump admires in Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un and Rodrigo Duterte would just threaten the opposition. A president of a constitutional democracy, on the other hand, would deal with the limitations of a congressional republic and just get more creative than huffing and puffing about his wants.

Our deal for a president is a deal for someone not only to play by the rules, but to uphold them, not to pick and choose when law and order applies.

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Finish the Wall? Maybe it should be Finish Democracy. Make Trump Great Instead.


Terry H. Schwadron

MORE FROM Terry H. Schwadron


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