The border wall is often described as Donald Trump's signature issue, his most famous campaign promise, the very rationale for his political career—and therefore the most urgent priority of his presidency. And, indeed, Trump's recent behavior seemingly confirms this view. His unmet demands for $5 billion in wall funding have resulted in a goverment shutdown now approaching three weeks in length, and his first nationally televised Oval Office address Tuesday night, though brief and uneventful, was devoted entirely to justifying this hardball approach to what he characterizes as a "crisis" at the border. Trump is even supposedly considering the extraordinary step of declaring a national emergency that might allow him to move forward on wall construction without congressional approval, though his right to do so would remain unsettled at best for months or even years in the face of certain legal challenges.
Both allies and critics concede the centrality of the wall issue to Trump's political appeal and personal connection with his most enthusiastic supporters. But if building the wall was so necessary to the success of his presidency, why did he wait until now to act?
Trump made a very consequential decision soon after his unexpected election in November 2016 to delegate the prioritization of a legislative program to the Republican leadership in Congress: House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And the wall was far from the top priority for either Ryan or McConnell, who cared much more about repealing the Affordable Care Act and enacting tax reform. Addressing those two issues thus became the first order of business for Congress, while objectives that were more personally associated with Trump—like the border wall and infrastructure spending—moved further down the "to do" list.
At least in public, Ryan and McConnell assured Trump and other Republicans that they would get to everything on the agenda. Under the timeline unveiled at a January 2017 party retreat, ACA repeal would be accomplished by March, with tax reform following by the end of July—at which point the first phase of wall funding would be in place and an infrastructure bill would be well in the pipeline. But legislative business has a way of taking longer than expected, and in the end Republicans spent the first nine months of 2017 unsuccessfully attempting to pass a health care bill before giving up and moving to tax reform, which they pushed through in December.
By the time Congress turned its attention to immigration in early 2018, spurred on by the Trump-ordered expiration of the DACA program, a combination of several factors (fast-approaching midterm elections, Ryan's soon-to-be-public departure and its associated internal Republican leadership competition, and an increasingly beleaguered and intransigent White House) limited the potential for legislative accomplishment. Republican leaders successfully convinced Trump to wait until after the midterms to demand his wall money, avoiding an electorally disastrous pre-November shutdown but setting up a standoff in the final weeks of the 115th Congress that has now extended into the second week of the 116th.
One lesson that the Trump White House might have usefully taken from American history is that there is such a thing as a presidential "honeymoon": presidents usually have an easier time working their will in Congress during the early months of their first term than any time thereafter. But Trump, an unsophisticated newcomer to legislative politics with an amateurish and perpetually squabbling cadre of advisors, was not well-positioned to dispute the assurances of Ryan and McConnell that they knew best how to proceed—yet another example of his uniquely weak presidency. Two years later, Trump may come to regret that he didn't insist on funding for the border wall right away; the many months spent fruitlessly pursuing health care reform certainly seem in retrospect like wasted time. Though presidents may gain valuable wisdom through experience in office, the opportunity for realizing ambitious legislative change is greatest when they are still brand new to the job.