The increasing Republican skittishness about Trump’s wall and the continuing government shutdown offers an instructive preview of how Donald Trump’s presidency is likely to end: when key Republican senators decide that Trump is more trouble than he’s worth.
What’s new about this crisis is the increasing number of Republican defections. Politically, Trump’s obsession has backfired. His demand for the wall and his holding the rest of the government hostage become more unpopular by the day.
The most recent polls show that the public blames Trump more than the Democrats for the shutdown by margins approaching 2–to–1. There are at least seven Republicans in tight re-election races in 2020, and they aren’t happy.
They include Cory Gardner of Colorado, Susan Collins of Maine, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, and Rob Portman of Ohio. Senators Pat Roberts of Kansas, who is retiring, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska have also expressed exasperation in comments to the press. One can only imagine what they say in private.
In addition, two of the most resolute Trump defenders, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas, pushed back hard when Trump began saying that he could reprogram disaster aid to build the wall. Texas still has not recovered from the extensive damage of Hurricane Harvey.
Republicans are also frustrated that Trump keeps changing the game plan, on a whim, and fails to give them a heads-up. As recently as Dec. 19, Republicans in the Senate approved a funding bill that contained no extra money for the wall that Trump abruptly decided he had to have.
Here’s my crystal ball. I think the shutdown will end in the next week. The two parties in Congress will craft a deal that includes just enough of a face-saver that Trump can sign it. He and his advisers will be warned by key Republicans that they are just about out of patience.
The deal, not unlike the one that the Senate was prepared to go along with in late December, will reopen the government while separate negotiations about border security continue. In those negotiations, Democrats may come up with some kind of sweetener, such as more funds for border security including a stretch that Trump can call a wall, perhaps in exchange for a deal on DACA and the Dreamers. That would be worth a bit more wall ― which probably won’t even get built by the time Trump is ousted from office.
The fact that Trump has already backed off his threat to use emergency powers to build his wall suggests that he is not impervious to Republican pressure. Even the solid wall of right-wing support has started to crack on that one. The Wall Street Journal editorial board warned that if Trump could invoke emergency powers to build his wall, President Elizabeth Warren could use emergency powers to do God knows what.
Reflect on that for a moment. The gang at the Journal are actually worried that Elizabeth Warren might be the next president.
Republican defections over Trump’s wall are an ominous dress rehearsal for the end-game to come. Crumbling support for the shutdown comes at a moment when senior Republicans have challenged his Syria policy, and his Republican defenders are reeling from the latest revelations that the FBI initiated a counterintelligence investigation to assess whether Trump was literally acting as a Russian asset. That probe, in turn, became part of Robert Mueller’s inquiry.
Bottom line: Trump is becoming more and more of a political liability for Republicans, and harder and harder to defend. It’s challenging enough to defend him against all the charges of corruption and obstruction coming to a head in the Mueller probe. Impulsive and petulant demands like the wall only add to Republican miseries.
That’s why I remain convinced that the Trump presidency will end, after the House votes to impeach him, with a delegation of Republicans paying a call on the White House. They’ll advise Trump that his Senate support is uncertain, and that he’d be smart to cut the most important deal of his life — a deal with prosecutors to spare him and his family further legal woes ― if he will just spare the country another day of his presidency.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His latest book is Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?