Donald Trump staked his presidential candidacy on building a wall along the Mexican border and won. He promised repeatedly throughout the campaign that Mexico would pay for the wall, a promise he cannot enforce. So now he wants American taxpayers to foot the bill, and this week he threatened to shut down the entire government if Congress doesn't include wall funding in a debt ceiling bill that must be signed into law by Sept. 30, when the government's authorization to spend money runs out. The president issued his warning at a rally in Phoenix this week before a crowd that cheered wildly. I wonder how happy those same people would be if Trump were to follow through on his threat, seeing as large numbers of them, judging from the audience pictures on live TV, wouldn't receive their Social Security checks in the mail.
Building the wall isn't about controlling illegal immigration; there are more effective and cheaper means to do so. And illegal immigration is at historically low rates now anyway. The peak in illegal crossings occurred between 1995 and 2000, when more than 1.6 million people were apprehended trying to enter the country illegally. Since then, the numbers have declined steadily, with a couple of upticks, and declined most dramatically after the Great Recession. In 2016, the number of people caught was about 409,000 (in the same range as the early 1970s). And the figures have dropped even more in the first six months of 2017 -- a fact Trump has repeatedly taken credit for, claiming, misleadingly, a 76 percent decline since he was elected.
Trump uses immigrants as a convenient scapegoat whenever the need arises, as it did this week after widespread condemnation of his divisive and contradictory statements in the wake of the death of a woman in Charlottesville, Virginia, after a neo-Nazi drove his car into a group of people protesting a white supremacist march. It is no accident that Trump headed to Phoenix, ground zero in recent immigration battles, when the heat rose. He can always whip up a crowd by invoking Mexican "rapists" and drug dealers. No wonder some 62 percent of Americans say the president is doing more to divide the country, while 59 percent say Trump's actions and behavior have encouraged white supremacists, according to a new Quinnipiac poll.
Trump's threats and bullying -- especially of members of Congress in his own party -- are getting old. At some point, he must accomplish something concrete for the American people. And by "concrete," I don't mean an ugly, unnecessary barrier between the United States and our third-largest trading partner. The president has promised to repeal and replace Obamacare, reform our tax laws, get rid of counterproductive regulation and rebuild our infrastructure. So far, the only progress he's made is in the regulatory area. He cannot accomplish the rest of his agenda without Congress. That's the way our system works, a lesson he apparently missed when he went to "better schools" and was "a better student" than his critics. ("I live in a bigger, more beautiful apartment, and I live in the White House, too, which is really great," he also reminded the rallygoers.)
Congress returns after the long August recess Sept. 5. The debt ceiling and government funding bills are just the most pressing on the legislative agenda. The president has spent much of the week insulting the very people he needs to move forward, blaming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan by name for failing to get anything done. But Trump has been the most feckless president in recent memory. Barack Obama assumed office with a thin resume and few accomplishments to his credit, but he managed to get important legislation passed to keep the country from slipping further into economic disaster amid a difficult and lengthy recession. Bill Clinton flailed in his first couple of years, which resulted in his party's losing the House of Representatives in the midterm election for the first time in 42 years. And Jimmy Carter surrounded himself with loyal but inexperienced White House staff members, who alienated many of their needed allies on the Hill, and was largely regarded as a failed president. But Donald Trump is even more hapless.
Trump needs to stop talking about building walls and focus on building the relationships he needs within his own party. The country doesn't need a government shutdown. It needs a president interested in more than his own ego.