When asked what I miss most following my retirement two years ago, I’m reminded that in my two decades as a New York theater critic and arts writer my tickets to shows I reviewed displayed the cost to me: $0.00. That usually gets a laugh from whomever poses the question. But there’s nothing funny about furloughed federal government workers who, starting last week, received pay stubs bearing their value: $0.00.
To what end? The president insists there’s a security crisis at our southern border and that the only remedy is to build Wall from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific. The $5.7 billion for said Wall over which he has shut down much of the government would cover only 200 miles, if that. There are already 700 miles of barriers in strategic places along the border with Mexico, which would leave another 1,000 Wall miles to build. To figure the total cost you might suppose that quintupling would cover it–$25 billion and change. You would be incalculably wrong. The Wall will never be completed in Trump’s lifetime or anyone else’s. Just as we all should have known that Mexico was never going to pay for it. Forget that the president now insists he never said that. Who does he think he’s fooling? There are hundreds, at least, of videos proving what he promised time after time, often leading call-and-responses: “What are we going to build?” “The Wall!” “And who’s going to pay for it?” “Mexico!”
Don’t tell me the president doesn’t lie. “I never said Mexico was going to write a check for the Wall,” he said along the Texas border recently. He wants us to believe he was speaking metaphorically. But read any of his endless streams of mostly mindless Tweets and you’ll see that the president wouldn’t know a metaphor from a meatball.
But what matters right now is all the suffering he’s causing for a stupidly impossible vanity project. A week before Christmas, Trump was ready to sign off on a compromise that would leave the government open. All departments would be funded except the Department of Homeland Security, which would stay open with a continuing resolution until a compromise could be reached on border security, with $1.3 billion already on the table for Trump’s Wall. The compromise now sits on Senate Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk. All he has to do is put it up for a vote. It would pass, perhaps by a veto-proof margin.
But Trump spends much of his “executive time” watching cable news. (If you doubt it, just look at the timing of his Tweets.) Right-wing commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter derided him as a fake president should he back down from his central campaign pledge. Forget Mexico paying for it. Just build Wall anyway and let middle-class American chumps pick up the tab. The word “fake” must have riled Trump, who’s always throwing it around regarding news dispensed outside of Sean Hannity’s Fox orbit.
Trump shut down the government over comments delivered by a blowhard former prescription drug addict and a wicked-tongued woman who once said of 9/11 widows who questioned George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion that they “reveled” in their husbands’ deaths. These are Trump’s “advisers” now that he’s chased away most of those who have some clue of which they speak.
All of this to build a Wall that can never be realized and would be ineffectual anyway. When Trump visited the border, he was shown pictures of tunnels dug beneath portions of walls, fences or other barriers. And he was asked about photos showing a steel-slat barrier, which he’s favored lately, that had been sliced through using a hacksaw you could buy at Lowe’s or Home Depot. His response? “That wall was built by previous administrations” (translate Obama), ignoring the lineup of other prototypes ordered by Trump clearly visible in the background. He further lies that 4,000 terrorists crossed the southern border in the last year and dispatched his vice president, secretary of homeland security and hapless press secretary to repeat his lie. The figure from the latest year available, 2017-18, from the president’s own Department of Homeland Security, is 6. And these were only suspects, such as people who bore similar names to known terrorists. Other numbers show that illegal immigration at our southern border are lowest they’ve been in this century.
There is a crisis at the border, a humanitarian one as Trump mentioned in his Oval Office address. But the crisis is of his making, starting with separating children, even preverbal babies, from their parents. Many parents who’ve not already been deported are held in internment camps while their children are detained separately in other obscenely for-profit facilities. And we’re all paying for it. Not Mexico.
Trump’s Wall will never be built no matter how loudly he huffs and puffs. Most of the land along the Rio Grande as well as parts of the desert west of Texas is privately owned. The president has threatened to divert FEMA funds meant to help American citizens devastated by wildfires and hurricanes and also the Defense Department budget to pay for Wall. But that’s only part of the bill. To build his Wall, the president has proposed declaring “military eminent domain.” That sounds like martial law—using force to take private land from ranch owners and others. Still, they would have to be compensated at whatever is deemed “fair market value.” One ranch owner said he wouldn’t sell “if they offered me a trillion dollars.” Eminent domain, even with a military threat—does the president propose arresting anyone who doesn’t take his offer?—means litigation. A massive government takeover of thousands of square miles of private land would occupy courts along the southern border for decades at an astronomical cost unimaginable even to Trump.
The best outcome I can foresee is that the president goes through with his threat to declare a national emergency and the courts give him even a partial go-ahead. Before an ounce of concrete is poured after all the court challenges, Trump will be out of office. We’d be left with a precedent for the next president to use for a global emergency—climate change. Maybe we’ll still have time to save the lowlands and islands of our Chesapeake region from being swallowed up by rising sea levels.
May that be your ironic legacy, Mr. President.
Steve Parks is a retired journalist now living in Easton.