A Sean Hannity interview with President Donald Trump is always a curious spectacle: The interviewer has disavowed journalistic ethics, and the subject has no compunction about lying, so the entire affair has the atmospherics of a news program but the substance of a partially improvised drama. And what was so striking about the Thursday night Trump–Hannity interview at the US-Mexico border near McAllen, Texas, is how perfunctory the script and the performance is.
Even when faced with some of the most egregious softball questions of all time, Trump is barely coherent — unable to describe in any detail what exactly it is that he wants, unable to cite any specific legal authority for a potential emergency declaration option, and unable to describe what such an operation would actually let him achieve.
The one subject on which Trump displays any actual passion is the perfidy of the “fake news” media — perfidy that he tells Hannity he learned about by watching an earlier episode of Hannity’s show.
The man whose whims plunged the nation into a massive crisis that has air traffic controllers working without pay, FBI agents worried that ongoing investigations will have to be dropped, Joshua Tree National Park irreparably damaged, and food inspections curtailed seems to have no idea why.
Trump can’t explain exactly what he’s proposing
There’s one critical question in any political negotiation: What do the two sides want? Democrats’ view is fairly clear: They want to reopen the government and then let negotiations over any additional requests for wall-building to proceed on a separate track. Trump, by contrast, insists the government must stay closed until he gets his way.
But what is it he wants, exactly? Trump can’t quite say. He seems to acknowledge that he is not going to build the 2,000-mile wall he campaigned on by asserting that if the particular patch of border he is standing in front of was walled, then Border Patrol personnel could redeploy elsewhere. But how much wall are we talking about? And where? And at what cost? Trump doesn’t know.
HANNITY: There is no barrier. All those drugs get in if these guys can’t cover every inch of, you know, the 2,000 miles.
TRUMP: That’s right. They have easy access into the United States. We built a lot of wall. We have renovated tremendous amount of wall with money we have already gotten. And we are continuing that. But now we just really want to get it going and finish it up. We will build the new wall.
And it’s common sense. It really is, when you think of it, whether you are into the world of law enforcement, like these incredible folks behind us that understand the wall so easily, I mean, it would make their job so much better.
And they could also go to other areas, because where you have the wall, you don’t need so many people. We would probably pay for that many times in one year if you think about it. Just many times.
So it’s not a money thing. It’s a political thing. They look at the 2020 race and not feeling too good about it; they will do whatever they can to win.
In fact, later in the interview Trump seems to acknowledge that the presence or absence of a physical barrier has very little to do with the main immigration policy argument happening in Washington.
“I don’t know how you recover after losing a child killed by illegal immigrants,” Hannity observes, as if it’s easy to bounce back from having your child murdered by a native-born American. “I have met and interviewed so many angel moms and dads.”
Trump expounds further on this theme, touching on the White House’s overarching argument that US law is too generous to asylum seekers:
Death is pouring through. Not just at the border. They get through the border. They go and filter into the country. You have MS-13 gangs in different places like Los Angeles, and you have gangs all over Long Island, which we’re knocking the hell out of. There should be no reason for us to have to do. This she shouldn’t be allowed. If we had the barrier they wouldn’t be allowed in.
Trump’s implication that Central American asylum seekers are all dangerous gang members is a grotesque blood libel, and it’s sad for America how mainstream it’s become. But for the purposes of the shutdown, the key point is the one Trump himself makes here: Asylum seekers are allowed in because applying for asylum is legal.
The White House says it wants to change the relevant laws. But with unauthorized immigration from Mexico down dramatically from where it was 15 or 20 years ago this — asylum-seeking — and not people sneaking across the border is the core of the debate. The wall is irrelevant.
And yet Trump is also prepared to argue that it’s some sort of emergency.
Trump can’t explain his emergency plan
As the partial government shutdown wheezes into its third week, there’s a growing consensus in Washington that Trump’s way out of the bind will be to assert some kind of emergency wall-building power that turns this into a fight with the courts, and lets Trump reopen the government without seeming to back down.
But when Hannity brings up this option, presumably so that Trump can make the case for it, the president can’t be bothered to explain what powers he’s talking about asserting or why. (He should read Emily Stewart’s Vox explainer.) Trump says that he is “allowed to do it” — meaning declare an emergency — but he can’t describe what law allows him to do it or what such a declaration would let him do. He just starts rambling.
HANNITY: You said earlier today that it’s likely that you are very likely going to declare a national emergency. How soon would that happen?
TRUMP: If we don’t make a deal with Congress, most likely I will do that. I would actually say I would. I can’t imagine any reason why not because I’m allowed to do it. The law is 100 percent on my side.
So if we can’t make a deal with Congress, we should be able to make a deal with Congress. If you look, Democrats in Congress, especially the new ones coming in, are starting to say, “Wait a minute, we can’t win this battle with Trump because of the fact that it’s just common sense. How can we say that a wall doesn’t work?” They show on helicopters empty fields and people just running through. And you put a wall — they can’t run through.
Then Hannity tries to help him out with a specific idea — maybe through an emergency declaration, he could use Defense Department money to build a wall. But Trump immediately veers off track and starts talking about wheels:
HANNITY: What are the options, though, if you declare a national emergency? The Pentagon also has the funds available that they would be able to help support the building of the wall.
TRUMP: If we don’t make a deal with Congress, which we should be able to. Really just common sense, and there is some compromise needed, and, look, they know that the wall is working. Do you know what works? A wheel. And a wall. They call it a medieval thing.
Well, you know, I’m looking at all these very expensive cars all over here loaded up with machine guns and every single one of them has wheels. A wheel is an old thing. There are two things that they work. A wall would be so effective. It would solve so many killings and so much death and drugs and human trafficking. Where they tape up women on their face. They tape them up and put them in the back of a car or a van and they drive right through our border.
I’m not totally sure what Trump is talking about here, but more to the point: Trump isn’t sure what Hannity is talking about, which is why he started rambling about this. And yet Trump is the key decision-maker in this crisis.
Trump has no awareness of others
Well over 1 million people live in households relying on a federal paycheck that’s not coming on Friday because of Trump’s legislative tactics. Kids can’t go to the zoo, pilots are concerned about the safety of the aviation system, businesses that rely on timely economic data are flying blind, services for Native Americans are on the verge of breaking down entirely, and the economic consequences will only mushroom if multiple skipped paychecks lead to loan defaults and cascading problems.
Meanwhile, Trump missed his usual Christmas vacation at a luxury beach resort:
TRUMP: They know what I’m saying something 100 percent right. It’s not only us, it’s everybody saying, it everybody says it. If you don’t have a barrier, whether it’s a steel barrier or a concrete wall, substantial and strong, you never are going to solve this problem. You are never going to solve and I don’t need this.
Look, I could have done something a lot easier. I could have enjoyed myself. I haven’t left the White House because I’m waiting for them to come over in a long time. You know that. I stayed home for Christmas. I stayed at the White House for New Year’s.
HANNITY: I think you tweeted Christmas Eve, all alone, where is Chuck and Nancy?
TRUMP: My family, I told them, stay in Florida and enjoy yourselves. The fact is I want to be in Washington. I mean, I consider it very, very important.
But this is the crux of the matter. He doesn’t consider this issue very important. It’s not important enough for him to offer Democrats anything of substance in a legislative swap, and it’s not important enough for him to have bothered to learn anything about the issue or even develop a specific proposal. He is imposing huge costs on a huge number of people, but he personally is suffering nothing more than the indignity of hanging out in the White House.
And he’s so unselfconscious that he actually threw himself a pity party in the midst of all the problems he’s causing. There’s no apology here for the inconvenience, followed by an explanation of why he’s doing it. Because he’s not sorry. He wants us to feel sorry for him. And that, in some ways, is the most disturbing thing of all.