As a Shutdown Looms, a Reminder that Trump Already Turned Down a Border Wall Deal. Twice.

Polling has been consistent over the past two years: most Americans oppose building a wall on the Southern border with Mexico. Going further, polling shows that just 28 percent support President Trump’s plan to shut down government if he doesn’t secure funding for a border wall, with 68 percent opposing, and 60 percent said they would blame Trump and Republicans if a shutdown occurred.

On the other hand, after two years of false promises and endless rally chants, the Republican base is agitating for a wall. Whipped into a frenzy, and with bold threats from Trump, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Trump feels he can back down.

Some voters may be wondering how we got to this point at all. And to those people, as well as those who consider themselves Trump’s “base” who desperately want to see a wall built, there’s something you need to know. Or, that is, recall:

Trump already turned down an offer from Democrats to build a border wall.


It was earlier this year in 2018. And so we’re clear, I don’t mean some euphemism like “fencing” or “border security” which may or may not mean a wall, and I don’t mean an attempt to hold to Trump’s long-abandoned campaign promise of having Mexico pay for it. I mean Democrats offering the full $25B that Trump has requested for construction of a border wall.

That’s text from proposed legislation that got 54 votes in the U.S. Senate. President Trump threatened to veto it. He turned down the same offer two months later.

Don’t remember any of this? I don’t blame you. A lot of this has to deal with detailed policy proposals, some of which were introduced in a bunch, and the media took a shortcut in describing the substance of it all, instead focusing on the jockeying and winners and losers.

Furthermore, if your media diet includes a lot of FOX News, Breitbart, or other anti-immigration platforms, you likely heard next-to-nothing about these developments; or, what you did hear was falsely describing literally everything as “amnesty.” So let’s take a walk down memory lane.

Fall 2017 – End of DACA

President Trump unilaterally ended a program President Obama unilaterally created, protecting children who were brought here illegally by their parents from deportation and allowing them to work and live legally in the United States as long as they meet certain requirements and stay out of trouble. This program is overwhelmingly popular: a June 2018 poll by CNN shows 80 percent of Americans support DACA, including 67 percent of Republicans.

The President, who has publicly stated he supports the program as well, argued it should be passed legislatively, rather than by executive order. The solution should be simple: pass the DREAM Act that protects Dreamers with a huge bi-partisan majority, take credit for solving a problem Obama couldn’t, and add a signature legislative accomplishment to run in for the 2018 midterms.

The Senate version of the DREAM Act was most recently introduced in July 2017, with 7 Democrats and 3 Republicans as co-sponsors. It was referred to the Judiciary Committee, where it died. The House counterpart, with over 200 co-sponsors, was introduced and languished in committee around the same time.

This has been a common refrain for the past eight years. In eight years, from 2010-2018, the House of Representatives has never once voted on any bi-partisan immigration legislation. That’s not for lack of consensus or votes — in fact, it’s the exact opposite. Because bi-partisan immigration reform would pass in the House, the Speaker of the House (first John Boehner, then Paul Ryan) refused to allow those bills to be voted on.

Boehner and Ryan have been deathly afraid of risking ire from the ironically named “Freedom Caucus,” who support big government bureaucracy and market intervention when it comes to immigration issues. Without the cover Trump could have provided, anti-immigration Republicans in the House and Senate threatened an uprising, and the bi-partisan legislative fix that Trump specifically asked for died.

January 9, 2018 – First Bi-Partisan Meeting

In the meantime, the tax bill passed, and fresh off that victory, Trump saw a chance to gain another. In January, he convened a bi-partisan group of legislators to discuss protecting Dreamers. At this meeting, according to White House transcripts, Trump famously said:

“I will say, when this group comes back — hopefully with an agreement — this group and others from the Senate, from the House, comes back with an agreement, I’m signing it.  I mean, I will be signing it.  I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, gee, I want this or I want that.’ ” –Remarks by President Donald Trump, January 9, 2018

January 11, 2018 – Shitholes

Following the President’s lead, Democrat Dick Durbin and Republican Lindsay Graham, among others, crafted a bi-partisan comprehensive immigration bill that Trump said he would sign without asking for additional demands. It didn’t include funding for a border wall, just the usual language about border security, but Trump was clear in the previous meeting: he’d sign it.

Once word of the bill got out, Republicans in Congress who oppose legal immigration — including Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Purdue (R-GA) and Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) — worked with White House officials who oppose legal immigration — including policy adviser Stephen Miller and Chief of Staff John Kelly — to lambaste the bill before Durbin and Graham presented it to the President. The resulting meeting devolved into a shouting match and, famously, the President deriding people who come from “shithole” countries.

After the meeting, immigration restrictionists controlled the debate and President Trump went back on his bi-partisan commitment, saying, “I want this,” and, “I want that,” in exchange for protecting Dreamers.

January 19, 2018 – The Schumer Shutdown

What specifically Trump wanted was unknown for a few weeks. This is in part because Trump himself is famously averse to understanding policy, or even attempting to, leaving Miller and Kelly to fill in the gaps. This confusion lasted until the point where a spending bill needed to be passed and Democrats saw this as an opportunity to gain leverage in the debate.

On Friday, January 19th, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer visited the White House for the “Cheeseburger Summit,” Over that lunch, Schumer and Trump came close to working out an agreement on immigration; however, as soon as Schumer left, restrictionists again got to Trump’s ear and Trump announced there was no deal to be had. Democrats moved forward with the government shutdown, starting a blame game. The short-term CR passed easily in the House, and with 50+ votes in the Senate, it was easy to blame Democrats for the shutdown. The public agreed, and after just a weekend, Democrats worked with Mitch McConnell on a deal.

The liberal base hated the deal and felt Schumer caved, but it turned out to be a substantive compromise: McConnell would allow votes on four immigration-related bills. You see, normally McConnell doesn’t allow votes on bills that won’t pass (or votes he personally doesn’t like). Now, there would be legislation and votes. This meant negotiation. This was progress.

January 30, 2018 – State of the Union

After it became clear that they needed specific demands, President Trump laid them out in his January 30th State of the Union address. Trump referred to them as his “four pillars”: 1) Protect Dreamers, 2) Build a wall, 3) End family sponsorship for legal immigration, and 4) End the Diversity Lottery.

The nominal reasoning behind the latter two pillars is to emphasize merit-based immigration and bring more high-skilled workers into the United States. However, encouraging more high-skilled workers is not mutually exclusive from maintaining current levels of legal immigration.

That reasoning is a fig leaf. The real goal, which has been explicitly stated by restrictionists responsible for the legislation, is to reduce legal immigration. Detailed analysis of the numbers presented by the four pillars plan (introduced legislatively by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA)) estimates that the four pillar approach cuts off access to legal immigration to an additional 22 million would-be immigrants, and reduces legal immigration levels by almost 50 percent.

There is no other reason to support these changes. In lieu of outright admitting to opposing legal immigration, many Republicans (most notably Trump) have resorted to outright lying in order to generate support. Trump lied that the current policy allows an immigrant to sponsor a “virtually unlimited” amount of “distant relatives” but this is completely false. Trump also specifically lied about the attempted New York City bomber bringing in “22 relatives” through this policy, which is just a made up story. Trump also lies repeatedly about the diversity lottery.

Why lie? Without these fantastical (and invented) stories, there’s little inherent appetite for restricting legal immigration. As I’ve written before, most Republicans and most Americans support legal immigration. While most Republican legislators have abandoned core conservative principles in order to support Trumpism, enough remain that support legal immigration to guarantee that restrictionist policies will never pass in the House of Representatives, let alone get to a bi-partisan 60 votes in the Senate.

With the compromise reached between McConnell and Schumer, that would soon be borne out.

February 14, 2018 – Vote-a-Rama

There were four votes taken on this day. None reached the 60-vote threshold required for passing. All four failed.

1) The Toomey Amendment

This bill was only about sanctuary cities and didn’t address either DACA or a border wall. We’ll pass over that one.

2) Coons – McCain

The next vote was for a bi-partisan bill from Chris Coons (D-DE) and John McCain (R-AZ). It protected Dreamers and offered some border security measures, but did not include funding for a Wall. A bi-partisan majority of 52 Senators voted for the bill, but it came eight votes shy of the 60 needed to end cloture.

3) Trump’s Four Pillars

Next after that was the SECURE Act, introduced by Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA). This bill was based off the four pillars that Trump laid out in the State of the Union. Accordingly, it had Trump’s full support, both behind-the-scenes and in public. The White House championed this bill, and would eagerly sign it. This full-throated support was enough to convince some hardliners, who otherwise opposed protections for Dreamers, to support the bill.

It failed 39-61. In a chamber with over 50 Republican votes and the support of three red state Democrats, the President’s four pillar approach couldn’t even get 40 votes.

4) Rounds – King

The last bill came closest to passing. This was the “Common Sense” bill (ultimately called “Rounds-King”). Fully negotiated in a bi-partisan manner, Democrats saw this as their best chance to protect Dreamers (as Trump initially said he wanted to do). In order to do so, they swallowed the pill of providing the full request of $25B for a border wall. Even that wasn’t enough, so Democrats also compromised and agreed that Dreamers, once protected, could not sponsor their parents for legal status.

The bi-partisan Rounds-King bill left out two of Trump’s pillars — the two that slashed legal immigration — but it included the other two, including full funding for a Border Wall. After years of chanting “Build the Wall,” perhaps the most tangible campaign promise that Trump made his base, he finally got Democrats to agree. It was the Art of the Deal, made real.

Trump did something Obama never could do. Obama never got an immigration bill passed, and had to use an Executive Order to protect Dreamers. With this deal, Trump would fix Obama’s mistake, do things the right way, and deliver a core promise to his base. Coming two months after passing the tax cut bill, this would be two campaign promises kept in two months. Republicans could spend the next ten months championing tax cuts and the border wall leading to the midterms.

Instead, Trump threatened to veto the bill that would fully fund $25B for his border wall. Because it didn’t cut legal immigration.

It still got 54 votes, just six shy of 60. Most Republicans opposed it due to Trump’s opposition. If Trump supported the bill, it would’ve easily cleared 60 and Trump would have his border wall.

March 23, 2018 – Omnibus

You may remember the $1.3T omnibus bill passed in March and signed by Trump. It contains spending priorities from both Republicans and Democrats. There are a few limited government conservatives in Congress, enough that in order to pass the bill needed Democratic support. The inclusion of any Democratic priorities dropped more Republicans off, so the bill was a practice of finding the sweet spot of guaranteeing enough things to Democrats while keeping on board enough Republicans to pass. After weeks of negotiation, it was ready for Trump to sign, but seeing negative coverage on cable TV caused Trump to tweet out that he might veto it. After a quick discussion with the Speaker and White House staff, Trump begrudgingly signed it and vowed never to do so again.

What you may not remember is that this was the last, best hope for Trump to get funding for his border wall. In the lead-up to the vote, Democrats made the same offer as they did in February: $25B for the border wall and protect Dreamers — covering two of Trump’s four pillars.

In February, the White House turned this deal down because they were holding out for cuts to legal immigration. Seeing how unpopular that position was, they changed their demands in March. This time, they reversed course on one of Trump’s four pillars and offered only temporary protection for Dreamers — just 30 months — in exchange for a permanent wall.

Democrats obviously wouldn’t agree to such a half measure that was short of what Trump claimed to want in the first place, and held firm to the original offer: Dreamers for the Wall. The White House turned it down. Instead of signing a spending bill that Trump could celebrate, Trump signed a bill that angered his base.

Spring 2018

If any or all of that slipped from your memory, it’s understandable. The vote-a-rama happened on the 14th; this was the same week the Wall Street Journal first reported about illegal payments from Michael Cohen to Stormy Daniels during the campaign, to buy her silence for Trump’s affair with her a year into his marriage to Melania. A few days later, word of Trump’s other affair with Karen McDougal broke. Also, around the same timeframe the Nunes Memo was made public, followed by the Democratic response. And it was at least the 5th or 6th Infrastructure Week. A lot was going on.

But there would be a Round 3, this time in the House of Representatives.

May 9, 2018 – Discharge Petition

The pathway to a wall here is far more circuitous, but still possible. In May, 17 pro-immigration Republicans in the House created and signed on to a “discharge petition.” This was a little-used parliamentary maneuver to force a vote in the House. It requires a majority of signatures, which would then presumably result in the same majority passing the vote. It’s little-used because usually in history if something has a majority of support in Congress, it would get voted on. As discussed above, not so in the Republican-controlled House, which hasn’t allowed a single bi-partisan vote on immigration in eight years of control.

(This is how the Gang of 8 bill died. After passing with 68 votes in the Senate, and with President Obama’s support, Speaker John Boehner refused to allow the bill to come to a vote in the House, where it would have surely passed. He did this as a sop to the Freedom Caucus, which still didn’t stop them from leading a revolt against him.)

This specific discharge petition was designed for maximum compromise. Rather than focus on a single bill, it followed the “Queen of the Hill” rules: an empty bill would be introduced with four amendments to be voted on. Whichever one had the most votes (and a majority of votes) would be substituted into the bill and then passed.

In order to be as fair as possible, and generate as much support as possible, pro-immigration Republicans and Democrats worked out which four bills would receive votes. This included:

1) A clean DREAM Act

This would revive the 2017 bill, which was never allowed a vote. It would not address any other aspect of immigration, including a border wall, focusing strictly on a legislative fix for DACA.

2) The Securing America’s Future Act

Introduced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), this was an anti-immigration bill that was even more hardline than Grassley’s “four pillars” bill that the Senate voted on in February. It would offer protection to far fewer Dreamers than what Trump initially proposed, along with other proposals favored by the anti-immigration wing.

3) Any bill of House Leadership’s choosing

The bi-partisan group offered a chance for Paul Ryan and House Leadership to craft their own immigration policy; this would be a Republican-led effort that might find a way to get a majority of support. If that could happen, and with Trump’s support, it stood a decent chance of being the top vote-getter and making its way into law.

4) The USA Act

A bi-partisan bill offered by Will Hurd (R-TX) and Pete Agular (D-CA), this is a fairly narrow bill that would protect Dreamers, prevent them from sponsoring their parents for 10 years, increase the number of immigration judges, and provide funding for increased border security (but not necessarily a wall).

Based on previous votes and the whip count, it was clear that both the DREAM Act and the USA Act would pass with a large bi-partisan majority in the House. Under normal circumstances, either bill would also easily pass the Senate, and a willing President could sign it into law. But without a willing President, clearing 60 votes in the Senate was less likely — though passage in the House was still all-but-certain.

On the other hand, the anti-immigrant Goodlatte Bill was highly unpopular among both a general public who supports legal immigration and pro-immigration Republicans. If the Grassley bill couldn’t get 40 votes in the Senate, there was no chance that the Goodlatte Bill would ever pass.

This left an opportunity for Paul Ryan to take the best elements of the USA Act, add border wall funding, and get it passed. Inclusion of $25B for the wall may lose most Democratic support in the House, but a similar bill already received 54 votes in the Senate. Working with Trump and McConnell, this was another opportunity to reach a bi-partisan compromise and secure the funding for the wall that the GOP base craved.

June 12, 2018 – End of Discharge Petition

With all Democrats on board, the discharge petition was at 216 votes, 2 shy of the majority needed to trigger it. Several moderate Republicans were sympathetic to the efforts, but were holding out in order to allow Paul Ryan an opportunity to take charge of immigration votes (rather than have it forced upon him). Ryan announced that he would allow a vote on the Goodlatte Bill, and then also would work within the Republican conference to craft another bill which would get a vote. The moderates were satiated by this, and did not sign onto the petition, which ultimately failed.

June 21, 2018 – Goodlatte I

The Goodlatte bill was already written, and thus received the first vote. Trump fully embraced it —  it failed to even reach 200 votes in the House, with obviously no Democratic support. Even if it had managed to pass, its failure in the Senate was guaranteed.

All attention turned to the Ryan-led effort. It was labeled a “compromise” bill, but that compromise referred to between the moderate and restrictionist wings of the GOP only. Immediately out of the gate, Ryan made it clear he would not seek any bi-partisan approach. After all, a bill that got Democratic votes might pass.

June 27 – Goodlatte II

Relying solely on Republican votes meant that moderates were along for the ride, using Ryan’s support as cover. Meanwhile, immigration restrictionists quickly figured out they held all the cards. They kept asking for more and more demands to be in a position where they could consider voting for it. Ryan acquiesced, and the so-called “compromise” looked more and more like the original Goodlatte bill, with only a few pieces remaining that moderates could hold onto. Like the original, the “compromise” bill would cut legal immigration by up to 40 percent immediately, and up to 50 percent over ten years.

Despite making the bill more hardline, anti-immigrant Republicans saw that the bill had no chance of passage and ultimately bailed. Ryan moved forward with a vote, and pro-immigration moderates ended up voting for an abominable anti-immigration bill that never had a chance at passage. Ultimately, it flopped with only 121 votes, with over 300 opposing.

After the vote, immigration hardliners torched Ryan, as they torched Boehner before him, ignoring the fact that Ryan single-handedly prevented the passage of a bi-partisan immigration reform bill (as did Boehner before him). With the demise of House-led immigration reform, so too did Trump lose any chance at securing border wall funding in 2018.

November 6 – Mid-Terms

Democrats gained 40 seats in the House, with much of the gains coming from suburban swing districts that were represented by pro-immigration Republicans. As a result, the now-minority Republican caucus is even more anti-immigration than ever. This has not been matched with any shift in public sentiment: support for legal immigration remains as high as ever.

Buoyed by these results, and by federal courts protecting Dreamers, Democrats seem far less likely to accede to a border wall than they were back in February. Earlier this week in a televised meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, Trump agreed to take all the blame for a shutdown, giving up even more leverage. It’s a terrible political position to be in, and it comes at a time of high disarray internally as Trump is in-between Chiefs of Staff.

It’s of little comfort to imagine an alternative reality, where Trump said “yes” to either of the times Democrats offered to give him everything he wanted on the Border Wall. Even still, it’s worth understanding exactly why and how we got to the point we’re at today.