President Trump has a long list of imaginary friends.
There was Jim, who no longer visits Paris because immigrants have sullied its allure — a character whose existence White House aides were never able to confirm. There were his White House predecessors who, he claimed, told him they wished they had built a southern border wall — an assertion each former president denied. There have been the many otherwise “tough” people Trump has described anecdotally in countless speeches, who, he’s insisted, cried tears of awe and gratitude in his presence.
And through the record 35-day partial government shutdown, there were the federal workers who, despite missing two paychecks, “care so much about border security,” Trump said, that they were “encouraging” him to stand his ground for the border wall.
He ultimately backed down and agreed to reopen government for three weeks, while he and Congress negotiate a border security compromise. Since then Trump has insisted on the existence of new companions: Democrats secretly supportive of money for the wall.
This time, however, it matters whether such people exist. If they do, Trump might manage to fulfill his signature campaign promise. If they don’t, he probably will find himself at the end of three weeks facing the same limited options: humiliating defeat or a legally and politically risky declaration of a national emergency, so he can spend billions on a wall without Congress’ approval.
So far, the evidence for Trump’s claims of secretly supportive Democrats is as scant as for Jim the former Francophile.
“I think we’re all unified as Democrats. I have yet to talk to anyone who is anxious to fulfill the president’s campaign wish of seeing this wall be built,” said Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia, a first-year lawmaker. Last week she organized a letter signed by 29 other moderate House Democrats suggesting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi allow a vote on Trump’s request for $5.7 billion if he first ended the shutdown.
Calling for an approach to border security that is “smart” and “multifaceted,” Luria was open to a compromise that included funding for a physical barrier along the border. “I think it’s just too simplistic to say wall or no wall,” she said.
Another signator, Rep. Ed Perlmutter of Colorado, said he could perhaps support a compromise with wall funding now that the shutdown is over. “I could see where they could work together to come up with something that's not perfect for anybody but is acceptable,” he said.
If any Democrats are willing to accept such a compromise, they are no doubt fewer in number and less enthusiastic than those Trump has conjured.
“I see a lot of the Democrats, almost all of them, are breaking and saying, ‘Look, walls are good, walls are good,’” he said Jan. 24 during a White House meeting. “Big difference from what you had two or three weeks ago.”
A day later, Senate votes showed the opposite to be true. Several Republicans voted with Democrats on a funding bill without billions for wall construction. Within hours, Trump agreed to the three-week deal to fund and reopen a quarter of the government — an embarrassing retreat — having failed to divide Democrats or secure money for a wall.
With Democrats having shown their determination to fight, and to resist Trump’s efforts to dictate to the legislative branch, they head into the border-security negotiations that begin Wednesday with greater leverage and diminished pressure from immigration advocates and party activists opposed to a wall.
Trump, for his part, is weakened not only by defeat in the monthlong skirmish but also by his two-year record as an unreliable, even untrustworthy negotiating partner, which has frustrated lawmakers in both parties. That record is one reason more Democrats don’t come to the table on a wall.
“There could be a deal to be had here, but it would be a lot more likely if we believed the president could be an honest broker,” said a chief of staff to a Democratic senator. “If he wanted to come to our caucus right now and he said, ‘Just give me something you guys call border security and I'll go call it a wall,’ I think some more people in our caucus would go along — if people trusted him to keep his word.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, told reporters that the president’s erratic style has been an impediment to legislative action and he should stay on the sidelines.
“When the president stays out of the negotiations, we almost always succeed. When he mixes in, it’s a formula for failure,” Schumer said. “So I'd ask President Trump, let Congress deal with it on its own.”
On Friday, shortly after Trump announced the short-term agreement, White House aides echoed their boss in telling reporters that some Democrats had privately signaled a willingness to negotiate on the border wall. Trump seemed to throw cold water on that idea during an interview Sunday, yet on Monday Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made the same point. She would not, however, name any Democrats.
At least publicly, Democrats have softened their absolute opposition to a wall.
Pelosi has indicated that some House Democrats might be open to a solution that includes wall funding, vaguely acknowledging “differences of opinion” among them. “Diversity is our strength,” she said Friday. “But our unity is our power.”
Pelosi has called a wall immoral, reflecting a Democratic constituency that is unified by resistance to Trump. But as soon as he agreed to fully reopen the government through Feb. 15, Democratic leaders expressed a willingness to negotiate as promised, even as they remained hostile to his proposed wall.
“We have consistently said we do not support a medieval border wall from sea to shining sea,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “We are willing to support fencing where it makes sense, but it should be done in an evidence-based fashion.”
Throughout the shutdown, Trump never fully appreciated the breadth of Democrats' opposition. He wrongly assumed that he could chip away at it by offering what he thought were major concessions: changing the barrier from a concrete wall to steel slats, and then offering three years of protection from deportation for undocumented immigrants who came to the country illegally as children, and for refugees from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan living in the U.S. because of violence or disasters in their lands. Trump has attempted to repeal protections for those groups, only to be blocked by courts.
Nadeam Elshami, a former longtime aide to Pelosi, said that his former boss’ refusal to negotiate over border security until Trump reopened the government was a means of asserting the power of the legislative branch and building additional leverage for eventual talks.
“She will never negotiate in public like Trump,” Elshami said. “But the private conversations that take place throughout, among the caucus, is just to come up with a unified position. Politics is about leverage, but for Democrats it's about what gets you to a strong position that you can negotiate from.”
Times staff writers Sarah D. Wire and Molly O’Toole contributed to this report.