By John Cassidy
With Donald Trump, it’s always been B.S. all the way down. “I play to people’s fantasies,” begins a passage in “The Art of the Deal,” his ghostwritten magnum opus, from 1987. “People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective promotion.”
Ever since Trump entered the Presidential race, in 2015, he’s been selling a fantastical vision of a wall across the southern border. Now reality has finally caught up with him, and he isn’t enjoying the experience. “I’m not happy about it,” he said to reporters on Tuesday morning, after they asked him to comment on the funding agreement that Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill had reached the previous evening.
It’s clear why Trump isn’t happy. This time last year, he was demanding twenty-five billion dollars for a vast concrete wall. At the end of December, he shut down large parts of the federal government in support of his demand for $5.7 billion in funding and two hundred miles of steel barriers. Under the dealreached on Monday, Congress would provide $1.375 billion for fifty-five miles of slat fencing. In Wall Street terms, the agreement would give Trump about twenty-four cents on the dollar. As of Wednesday morning, he hadn’t yet agreed to the plan but it looked like he would. The Washington Post and CNN both reported that Trump intended to sign the spending bill.
He certainly knows how coercive deals work. When he was in the private sector, he was often on the other end of them. In 2006, Andrew Tesoro, a New York architect who designed the clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club Westchester, informed Trump’s representatives that he was owed a hundred and forty thousand dollars. They offered him fifty thousand, take it or leave it. Fearing he might get nothing, Tesoro submitted a revised bill for that amount. Then Trump called him up and said that he’d pay half of it. “I walked away with $25,000,” Tesoro told Forbes, in 2016.
In all of his businesses, Trump was known for behaving like this toward smaller venders and contractors. How did he get away with it? He had the leverage. To get paid in full, people like Tesoro would have had to take him to court, an expensive, risky, and hassle-inducing prospect. So, they tended to settle for dimes on the dollar, as Trump knew they would.
Now Trump’s the one lacking leverage. Having already folded when the shutdown damaged his poll ratings, his threat to cause another government closure isn’t credible. He’s also been threatening to declare a national emergencyand seize some extra funds from the Pentagon budget, but Republican leaders on the Hill don’t like this scheme, which, in any case, would quickly get snagged in the courts.
Trump is stuck, so he’s resorting to yet more B.S. After registering his unhappiness about the spending deal to reporters, he went on, “It’s not doing the trick, but I’m adding things to it. And when you add the things I have to add, it’s all gonna happen where we’ll build a beautiful, big, strong wall that’s not gonna let criminals and traffickers and drug dealers and drugs into our country.” Later in the day, in a pair of tweets, Trump said, “Looking over all aspects knowing that this will be hooked up with lots of money from other sources . . . Will be getting almost $23 billion for border security. Regardless of Wall money, it is being built as we speak.”
Virtually nobody who has followed the story in any detail is falling for this spin. “One point three billion dollars? That’s not even a wall, a barrier,” Sean Hannity, who is arguably Trump’s biggest booster in the media, said to his Fox News Channel audience on Monday night. “Any Republican that supports this garbage compromise, you will have to explain.” Mark Meadows, the head of the House Freedom Caucus, told Hannity’s colleague Neil Cavuto, “Only in Washington, D.C., can we start out with needing twenty-five billion dollars for border-security measures and expect applause at $1.37 [billion]. I mean, only in D.C. is that a winning deal.”
For once, Meadows was right. But, by Tuesday evening, there were signs that even some of the most rabid supporters of the wall had realized that further resistance was futile. Or, perhaps, they had been issued a new set of talking points. Speaking on his daily radio show, Hannity now referred to the $1.3 billion as “a down payment” and suggested that Trump could get more money for the wall from elsewhere in the federal budget, with or without declaring a national emergency. “In that case, he wins big time,” Hannity said.
This is what defeat looks like for Donald Trump and the maga Praetorian Guard: accepting scraps and describing them as a feast.