The Memo: Trump reaches to shore up base on border wall

President TrumpDonald John TrumpWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far MORE threw efforts to avoid a partial government shutdown into chaos on Thursday rather than run the risk of losing his base.

Hard-liners in Trump’s orbit, as well as commentators who are usually supportive of the president, had been vigorously critical when it looked as if he would sign a funding bill that did not include the $5 billion he had sought to advance the building of a southern border wall.

Trump was stung by the criticism and incandescent about the possibility he could begin losing the support of voters who have stuck by him through the many travails of his presidency.


Trump may also have had one eye on his reelection hopes.

“His reelection effort is 100 percent contingent on building a wall,” said one source close to the president, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “It is the equivalent of [former President] George H.W. Bush and ‘Read my lips, no new taxes.’ It is the single most important pledge he has made.”

Bush made the "no new taxes" promise as a candidate in 1988. He broke the pledge in office, a move that was seen as pivotal in his defeat by Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonRahm Emanuel: 'Panic would be the adjective to describe the mood' over Sanders Do Trump and Sanders hate America? Ex-CIA chief calls Trump intel shakeup a 'virtual decapitation' of the intelligence community MORE in 1992.

Another GOP operative agreed the outlook for Trump would be grim if he is perceived as having caved on the wall.

“Folding on the wall ends it for 2020,” the source stated.

Even if that is true, however, Trump has arguably wriggled onto the horns of an even more painful dilemma with his insistence that he will not sign the continuing resolution that was passed by the Senate on Wednesday.

At a White House ceremony to mark the signing of the farm bill on Thursday, Trump said: “In life there are certain principles worth fighting for — principles that are more important than politics, party or personal convenience. The safety and security and sovereignty of the United States is the most important principle of all.”

But how he hopes to wring $5 billion in wall funding from Democrats — who are adamantly opposed to his wall and will take control of the House early next month — is unclear, even after the GOP-led House passed a funding bill Thursday night that includes $5.7 billion for that purpose.


Last week, Trump said he would be “proud” to have a government shutdown over border security during a fractious meeting with House Democratic Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOcasio-Cortez: Trump would 'never' say to her face some of the shots he takes at her on Twitter Oversight Committee room to be dedicated to late Rep. Elijah Cummings Lawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response MORE (Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Lawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response | Top official warns virus appears inevitable in US | Democrats block two Senate abortion bills Lawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response Democrats block two Senate abortion bills MORE (D-N.Y.) in the Oval Office.

The White House signaled earlier this week that it was prepared to back down, with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying Tuesday that the administration had no wish to see a shutdown and would seek funding for the wall by other means.

A blizzard of criticism followed. Radio host Rush Limbaugh and commentators Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin all weighed in. Even though all three have a penchant for provocation, they are also influential with the most avidly conservative voters who make up Trump’s base.

Coulter blasted Trump for a “joke” presidency that she insisted would leave “no legacy whatsoever” during an interview with The Daily Caller on Wednesday. Limbaugh said on his radio show that, without funding for the wall, “Trump gets nothing and the Democrats get everything.”

Pressure was also applied by conservative lawmakers.

The House Freedom Caucus (HFC) said its members would back Trump if he vetoed the bill passed by the Senate on Wednesday.

Some people in Trump’s orbit said a floor speech by one of the HFC’s most prominent members, Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanTwitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates Trump adviser presses House investigators to make Bezos testify Booker, Merkley propose federal facial recognition moratorium MORE (R-Ohio), was influential, as clips were played on cable television.

In his speech, Jordan mocked the postponement of Republican promises to fund a border wall.

“Fool the American people four times, shame on Congress,” Jordan said Wednesday. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

By the following morning, Trump’s tone had shifted.

“When I begrudgingly signed the Omnibus Bill, I was promised the Wall and Border Security by leadership. Would be done by end of year (NOW). It didn’t happen! We foolishly fight for Border Security for other countries - but not for our beloved U.S.A. Not good!” Trump tweeted.

Some on the right hailed his turn toward a harder line.

Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, told The Hill, “We are glad to see that President Trump, who was elected largely because of this issue, is fighting for it.”

In a statement, Roy Beck, the president of NumbersUSA, a group that favors reduced levels of immigration, said, “Republicans have promised over and over again that they will fight for border security, but they never do. This is their last chance to show Americans that they keep their promises."

But more centrist Republicans are perplexed as to where the votes or political leverage could be found to produce the wall funding that Trump so eagerly desires.

Many worry that the GOP and the president himself will be held culpable by voters for any government shutdown.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Lawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response | Top official warns virus appears inevitable in US | Democrats block two Senate abortion bills Democrats block two Senate abortion bills Trump creates new headaches for GOP with top intelligence pick MORE (R-Maine), when told by reporters that Trump was refusing to sign the Senate-passed bill, replied, “Are you ruining my life?”

Collins added, “No, I don’t think the votes are [there]. We can’t have a government shutdown, period.”

Nine government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, State Department and Justice Department, will be affected if no deal is reached by midnight on Friday. The path to such a deal — one that would presumably have to offer greater concessions to Trump’s position — is entirely unclear.

Pelosi told reporters on Thursday, “We’re right in the middle of a sort of a meltdown on the part of the Republicans.”

Further churning up the news agenda, the president announced in a Thursday afternoon tweet that Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisFed chief issues stark warning to Congress on deficits Why US democracy support matters Hillicon Valley: DOJ indicts four Chinese military officers over Equifax hack | Amazon seeks Trump deposition in 'war cloud' lawsuit | Inside Trump's budget | Republican proposes FTC overhaul MORE would be stepping down in February.

Mattis was widely reported to have opposed Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. His resignation was strongly, if implicitly, critical of the president’s approach.

Once again, the crises are pressing in around Trump.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Jordain Carney contributed.