On Saturday, I put up a thought piece about the existential stakes in the border-security/national-emergency debate. It was necessary to do that, to establish the basis on which the following assessment is made.
The baseline assessment is very brief, as there is no need to make it longer. Trump declared a national emergency because he intends to keep fighting for his goal – border security – and declaring the emergency was the option he had to keep fighting.
Notice I didn’t say “the option to win.” I said “the option to keep fighting.”
As the conditions have been shaped for him at this decision point, Trump couldn’t win (achieve his goal) with any action he took. But he could keep fighting, rather than taking a defeat. He chose to keep fighting.
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Trump’s ultimate goal with border security is to defeat the will of those who plan and maneuver against border security. He isn’t approaching it as a law enforcement problem, which presupposes a basically unified political situation. I.e., the whole government is of the same mind about what the problem is and what needs to be done. The question isn’t “whether”; it’s how much of what, and where and when.
Trump approaches border security – realistically, in fact – as a strategic objective for which he has a motivated and relentless opposition, both in government and from well-funded political activists.
The most accurate metaphor here is warfare. This doesn’t mean that Trump is a militarist. It is weak-minded to jump immediately to that thought. It means he recognizes that his political opposition intends not to compromise or bargain with him – the signature dynamics of legislation and bureaucracy – but to defeat his will.
(Quite a bit of the editorial commentary on this episode has all but said in plain words that it was Trump’s obligation, once Congress had presented him with the bill, to let his will be defeated on border security. See my thought piece for why he and his supporters cannot agree with that in this case. Beyond the particulars of this case, the Constitution gives the president a veto. It is not a failure of obligation on his part to use it – which he could have done in this situation, and possibly prevailed assuming the House was unable to override the veto.)
The outcome with the spending bill last week made the targeting of Trump’s will abundantly clear. It contains a set of provisions intended to literally prevent Trump from improving security at the border. It is written to bog down any new barrier construction to the point that it can’t even happen, while (a) enlarging the bureaucratic apparatus for admitting more people who sneak into the country, but (b) restricting the capacity to detain them, thus forcing the release of more people into the U.S. population.
Pundits like Ann Coulter are very upset with Trump for signing the bill. I can understand that, but here is the reality Trump took from the outcome of Congress’s deliberations. The Republicans were not going to get anything better in the spending bill. In the Republican-held Senate, several dozen Republicans voted for the bill. The 83 votes for it were more than needed to override a veto. Trump could keep the standoff going, accept another shutdown, and it would still be those same Republicans negotiating on the Hill.
I don’t know if he was right to judge that that scenario was a worse option than the one he chose. But I believe that’s a big reason he chose to move on and continue the fight in a different way.
As to why he sees it as so necessary to continue the fight, certainly all the concerns routinely cited figure into it: drugs, human trafficking, gang crime, terrorism, overwhelmed U.S. resources and a migration problem that is not being managed to America’s benefit, but instead to our detriment.
Moreover, Trump is presumably aware, although most Americans are not, that the “migrant caravan” model is expanding. Besides being organized as an operational model for political purposes, it could well become even more difficult to limit and counter in the days ahead.
A caravan to the U.S. has already formed well to the south of Honduras, where the recent caravans have started from, and last weekend was attempting to enter Panama from Colombia. Global travelers know that the Darien Gap in Panama makes it tough slogging to get to the north by any means of surface travel – but in the last several months, the governments of Panama and Costa Rica have been actively facilitating the movement of migrants northward through their territory.
If Panama moves migrants through from Colombia, as a means of passing the problem along, the migrants will have a guaranteed way to get across the Darien Gap.
There’s another reason for Trump to make the emergency declaration, however, and one that should not be dismissed. Its significance can be illustrated with an allusion to operational maneuver.
Trump has declared a national emergency, and immediately, the media have gone into overdrive attacking him for it, and lawsuits are being filed to stop new barrier construction. Federal politicians are talking about suing Trump over the emergency declaration; California already has. The problem is now about heading Trump’s emergency construction bid off at the pass.
The legal rights and wrongs of the matter aside, what Trump has done can be analogized with a quote from military strategist Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder)*:
A clever military leader will succeed in many cases in choosing defensive positions of such an offensive nature from the strategic point of view that the enemy is compelled to attack us in them.
Trump’s arrangement to continue the fight on defense has reset the battle problem, and forced the opponents of border security to attack him in his new defensive position. It remains to be seen what the result of that will be. From Trump’s perspective, at the very least, it allows him to continue the fight instead of stalling out, and to have certain advantages, including a major say in shaping its terms.
* Quoted in B.H. Liddell-Hart, Strategy (London: Faber & Faber, Ltd.), 1967. p. xiii