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Backing himself against the Wall, Trump seeks out a new fight

Backing himself against the Wall, Trump seeks out a new fight
  (LAT)

With his decision to declare a national emergency on the border and seek to build a border wall by executive fiat, President Trump has guaranteed more high-profile battles and likely more defeats.

What he hasn’t gotten is more fence.

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That’s a consistent pattern — Trump opts for fights over actual accomplishments. A year ago, congressional Democrats offered $25 billion for border fencing as part of a broader immigration deal. Trump balked after initially agreeing. Last fall, Senate Democrats approved $1.6 billion to avoid a government shutdown. Trump went for the shutdown instead.

He ended up with $1.375 billion.

A POLITICAL EMERGENCY

The wall that began as a throwaway line in his campaign speeches has grown into a monster that dominates Trump’s presidency.

Trump once boasted that he could shoot a person on Fifth Avenue and still keep the loyalty of his supporters, but he appears to fear that they would desert him if he ever gave up on the promise to build a border wall. Because of that, Trump has spurned one compromise after another.

The ironic result: Not a single new mile of border fence has been built so far under Trump’s presidency, the first time that’s been true since at least Bill Clinton’s tenure, as Eli Stokols and Molly O’Toole wrote.

To mask the lack of new building, Trump has increasingly tried to claim credit for fencing that others built, as illustrated by the new slogan, “finish the wall,” that he tried to stress at his rally in El Paso on Monday.

Some old fencing has gotten upgrades in the last two years — much of it under contracts that were underway before Trump took office — but the overall picture hasn’t changed:

From the Pacific beachfront through California, Arizona and New Mexico, almost the entire border has some sort of fence, just under 700 miles’ worth. Most of the Texas border, about 1,300 miles, lacks fences.

The biggest reason for the disparity? The government owns most of the borderland west of Texas and can build on it with relative ease. In Texas, by contrast, private owners hold most of the land, and they have resisted having their property bisected.

The new spending bill that Congress passed Thursday includes enough money, just short of $1.4 billion, for about 55 miles of fencing to be built in the Rio Grande Valley, as Jennifer Haberkorn and Sarah Wire reported. Congressional negotiators reached the deal on Monday, then spent the next few days with Republicans nervously cajoling Trump into agreeing to sign it.

TRUMP’S DECLARATION

Trump went back and forth on whether he would sign the spending bill or precipitate another government shutdown. In the end, he agreed to sign it, but only in conjunction with a national emergency declaration that he hopes to use to divert several billion dollars more.

As Noah Bierman wrote, it’s unclear how much additional fencing Trump will actually be able to build even if his emergency declaration survives court challenges. White House officials say they hope to free up about $6.6 billion which could build or upgrade about 234 miles of fencing. They declined to say how much of that would be new construction.

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There’s not a lot Congress can immediately do to block the emergency declaration. As Sarah Wire wrote, Trump could veto any move to block it, and although several Republicans have said they oppose the move, enough will almost surely stand with Trump to prevent the two-thirds vote in both houses needed to overturn a veto.

Environmental laws aren’t much of an impediment, either. As Anna Phillips and Molly O’Toole wrote, the 2006 law which expanded the building of fences along the border explicitly allows the Homeland Security department to waive nearly any environmental law. The administration has aggressively used that power.

But the emergency declaration itself will be vulnerable in court, as Trump said in a long, self-pitying riff during his Rose Garden news conference.

Opponents will almost surely sue, arguing that no emergency exists and that Trump is using the declaration in an unconstitutional effort to bypass Congress’ power to control spending. How that fight will be resolved — probably by the Supreme Court — is anyone’s guess.

In addition to those battles, any building project along the Texas border will involve long fights in court with angry landowners challenging efforts to take their land by eminent domain.

Don’t expect to see a “big, beautiful wall” along the border anytime soon.

But some White House advisors say that’s all beside the point. Trump’s core supporters, they argue, would like to see a wall built, but what they really care most about is seeing Trump fight for their priorities. In that analysis, the fight matters more than the outcome.

A SNOWY DEBUT

The rapidly expanding Democratic primary field got a new entrant this week, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who announced, hatless, in the midst of a full-on snowstorm in Minneapolis.

Beyond the wintry imagery, Klobuchar offers Democrats a Midwestern road to the White House, as Evan Halper wrote. Her case for the nomination begins with her proven ability to win overwhelmingly in a state that Trump nearly captured in 2016.

She could soon face competition in that lane, however, as Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who won reelection in a Midwestern state that Trump carried, also seems likely to join the fray. He has promised a decision in March.

Next up? Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont could make his declaration this coming week, although reports of an imminent decision from him have repeatedly come and gone over the last month. And former Rep. Beto O’Rourke has promised a decision by the end of this month, a deadline that is fast approaching.

SOME DIVISIONS ON THE DEMOCRATIC SIDE

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The past few weeks have gone pretty well for Democrats — they got the upper hand in the 35-day government shutdown, several potentially attractive candidates for 2020 have had fairly successful launches of their campaigns, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has, so far, kept her caucus far more unified than Republicans were during their majority.

That being said, some potential fissures have begun to appear.

As Melanie Mason wrote, the popular slogan, “Medicare for all,” creates a potentially divisive issue. The candidates all mean somewhat different things when they use those words. So far, that hasn’t mattered much. Eventually, it may.

How to navigate allegations of sexual misconduct cases in the #MeToo era provides another vexing issue, as Michael Finnegan wrote. Sanders has had to repair damage caused by charges that aides in his last campaign harassed female coworkers.

Sen. Kamala Harris has dealt with a case of a former top aide in the California attorney general’s office who was accused of harassing an employee. She says she wasn’t aware of the case until a settlement became public after she took office in the Senate.

Harris has parlayed a very successful campaign launch into being, for now, the front-runner in some polls of the Democratic race. That has driven new scrutiny of her biography. As Mark Barabak wrote, the senator celebrates Oakland as her hometown, but some residents aren’t buying it. They note that she spent most of her life living elsewhere.

Meantime, Trump has raised a new menace — socialism as a campaign slogan. As Barabak and Mason wrote, Democrats have different views about how best to respond.

MUCH AT STAKE IN CENSUS FIGHT

The Supreme Court likely will announce soon that it will take on the issue of whether the Trump administration can add a question about citizenship to the next census. Both sides in the dispute have urged the justices to resolve the issue by the end of June so preparations for the headcount can proceed on schedule.

As David Savage wrote, California has a lot at stake in the dispute. Adding a question about citizenship likely will deter some immigrants from answering the census — critics of the administration say the question aims deliberately to cause such an undercount. That would hurt immigrant-heavy states like California, perhaps causing them to lose one or more seats in Congress.

On the topic of elections, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla was in Washington and sat down with Chris Megerian for a Q&A about California and election security.

MUELLER IN THE FINAL STAGES

Administration and congressional officials expect that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III will wrap up his investigation with a report sometime in the next few weeks. But several aspects of Mueller’s probe remain very much live.

This week, a federal judge agreed with Mueller’s prosecutors that Paul Manafort lied to investigators on some key questions. The ruling, as Megerian wrote, will likely mean a longer sentence for Manafort.

But more interesting were comments by prosecutors and the judge suggesting that Manafort’s false statements were connected to central elements of what Mueller is examining — whether anyone in Trump’s campaign cooperated with Russian efforts to sway the 2016 election.

On Capitol Hill, Democratic committee chairs are already gearing up to take the handoff from Mueller and proceed with their own investigations. What that means, Doyle McManus wrote, is that Congress is already considering impeachment — but won't publicly admit it.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

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