Last Friday, president-elect Donald Trump said in a telephone interview with the New York Times that financing a border wall with taxpayer money would allow the work to begin more quickly, but he insisted that Mexico "would ultimately reimburse the United States" for its construction. Not only does this statement spark concern that the massive cost of the wall ($5-10 billion by Trump’s estimate, $15-25 billion by actual experts) could fall on the American taxpayer, but it also raises questions regarding the president-elect’s ability to fulfill one of his central promises to the American public.
This statement by Trump should worry all Americans, not just the anti-Trump crowd, but fiscal conservatives and, yes, even Trump supporters. After all, the wall was possibly Trump’s most durable campaign promise, a central aspect of his political persona. Not just that the wall would be built, but that it would be paid for by Mexico. So revered was this promise that it became a chant in nearly all of his rallies. Now, that pipe dream seems to be slipping away.
Unsurprisingly, Mexico stated back in November that it would not pay for the wall. This was to be expected, and even the Trump team had drawn up plans on how to deal with this. However, such plans have hit a roadblock, and a surprising one at that.
On Dec. 5, House majority leader Republican Kevin McCarthy said, "I think [rewriting the tax code is] a better way of solving the problem than getting into a trade war with a 35 percent tariff." Imposing tariffs, an essential part of Trump’s plan to “leverage” Mexico into paying for the wall, now runs the risk of being dead on arrival in the House of Representatives.
Of course, there are ways around Congress for Trump and his tariffs. Laws currently in place might allow him to legalese his plan into action; however, this maneuvering might cost him with both the mainstream GOP (a group still not too fond of him) and the general public (his transition favorability ratings are already the worst in decades). If he was to take this approach, he could be mired in long-running legal battles over the constitutionality of his workaround, something that would likely worsen his already tenuous position as POTUS.
With that in mind, Trump has a choice to make, and it appears he’s already made it. In order to fulfill at least part of his promise in his 90-day plan, the initial burden of the wall will be carried by the taxpayer. This, however, puts him in dangerous waters. By rushing the funding for the wall by avoiding Mexico until later, he runs the risk of totally neutering any attempt to pass tariffs in a seemingly uncooperative Congress. Furthermore, the inevitable cost overruns from the original plan will be particularly poignant, especially as they fall on the American people directly. If anything, Trump has given Mexico yet another reason not to play ball. If his promise of Mexican concessions falls through, Trump could be in hot water with both Congress and the American people, and Mexico may simply be able to wait him out.
A failure by Trump to materialize his most central promise could potentially turn even his allies against him, reducing his political image from tarnished to destroyed. The immediate consequences would be devastating, bringing doubt into his ability to push forward any of his other promises. On Jan. 20, Trump will have to fully face a crisis of his own making, his first as president, and likely not his last.