WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump leaned ever closer Thursday towards declaring a national emergency at the southern U.S. border — and repeated his flummoxing claim that America's new trade pact with Canada and Mexico would more than cover the cost of erecting a wall against illegal migration.
Trump, who was visiting a Texas border town as a federal-government shutdown over the controversy stretched into its 20th day, also denied that he ever claimed during the 2016 election campaign that Mexico would directly foot the bill for his border barrier.
"Mexico is paying for the wall indirectly," the president declared before boarding Marine One for a trip to Andrews Air Force Base and later, the border community of McAllen, Tex.
"When I said, 'Mexico will pay for the wall,' in front of thousands and thousands of people — obviously they're not going to write a cheque, but they are paying for the wall indirectly, many, many times over, by the really great trade deal we just made."
Trump has yet to explain his thinking on that score, given that the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a hard-won successor to NAFTA, isn't a revenue generator for the government. It's a deal to create a North American tariff-free trading zone to foster economic growth in all three countries.
It's a baffling argument the president also made during Tuesday's prime-time Oval Office address — one that fact-checkers at the Washington Post described as a "four-Pinocchio claim" that "betrays a misunderstanding of economics." But it's clearly become his chosen justification for a costly and protracted funding dispute over a project for which he insisted Mexico would foot the bill.
To that end, Trump also repeated, unprompted, that "Congress has to approve the deal" — a hint that when the North American trade debate does finally arrive on Capitol Hill, he might try to tie Democratic intransigence over USMCA to its opposition to the wall.
"It's a trade deal," Trump said. "It has to be approved by Congress; it probably will be, other than maybe they even hold that up because they want to do as much harm as they can, only because of the 2020 presidential election."
A number of Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have expressed misgivings about a lack of enforcement for USMCA's labour and environmental provisions, but it remains far from clear whether those issues are serious enough to scuttle the new agreement.
Veteran Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade issues, is urging Trump to make good on threats to pull out of NAFTA if the new Democrat majority in the House of Representatives insists on reopening the deal.
"If they're reaching the point where we've got to go back to the negotiating table, I would encourage the president to pull out of NAFTA and hope that they're smart enough not to let that happen,” Grassley said Wednesday. “Why would you want to go back to an environment where there's higher tariffs on our products sent to Mexico than them getting their products into this country?"
That would also impair Canadians' access to the American market.
Trump, who said Thursday he has cancelled plans to travel to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum beginning Jan. 22, is also leaning towards exercising what he called his "absolute right" to declare a national emergency on the southern border — an end-run around opposition in Congress that he contends would allow him to finance the wall with Defense Department resources.
"I'm not prepared to do that yet, but if I have to I will," Trump said. "We're either going to have a win, make a compromise —because I think a compromise is a win for everybody— or I will declare a national emergency."
That approach would surely face legal challenges, but it would at least give Democrats and the White House, each trapped by political imperatives in an intractable dispute, an exit strategy to end a government shutdown that could soon become the longest in U.S. history.