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The real national emergency is Trump’s incompetence

He’s flailing and can’t get anything done.

President Donald Trump speaks during a rally on border security at the El Paso County Coliseum on February 11, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. 
“We’re going to build some steel slats and pay for it by shortchanging military construction projects.”
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Today’s national emergency declaration from Donald Trump is an obvious fraud, detectable if nothing else by the reality that various White House and congressional officials have been teasing it as a possibility for months. In a real emergency, you act fast.

In a fake emergency, you act when you’ve decided the political timing is right as part of a larger ass-covering move because you need to back down from an ill-advised congressional fight that, itself, followed from an ill-advised campaign promise.

Security at the US-Mexico border is, of course, not perfect. But the world is full of problems, none of which are an “emergency” in the sense of requiring some kind of urgent extralegal repurposing of funds. Indeed, by robbing the nation’s drug interdiction and military construction budgets for his slat-building adventure, Trump is much more likely to make national problems worse rather than better: The process of fencing the southern border — ongoing for decades already — is subject to diminishing returns, with the valuable sections having been fenced years ago.

The crisis on display over the past couple of months is the total incompetence of Donald Trump. He has no understanding of how to set a policy agenda or get anything done.

Consequently, without Paul Ryan around to drive a legislative agenda that he can rubber-stamp, he’s flailing. First, shutting down the government and throwing millions of people’s lives into chaos. Now, reopening the government having obtained nothing he couldn’t have had in December while adopting a Hail Mary “emergency” scheme that is only going to make things worse. It’s a much better outcome than a new shutdown, but it should all make us worry about the president’s shaky ability to handle a real crisis.

The world’s stupidest political standoff

This all began, obviously, when Trump promised to build a solid concrete wall across the entire span of the US-Mexico border and make Mexico pay for it.

That was an incredibly stupid idea, wasteful and unworkable in every way, and his critics said so. But Trump transmogrified his opponents’ mockery into a test of will. The political establishment didn’t want to secure the border, but Trump did — and the wall was proof.

In office, Trump has been confronting the reality that his critics were correct in every way. Mexico is not going to pay for the wall, so congressional appropriations are needed, and the cost-benefit question is valid. He also long ago conceded that precisely because of cost-benefit considerations, there is not going to be a wall stretching across the entire border — there are places where it’s infeasible and useless, and that’s that. He also conceded, by the way, that there’s not going to be a wall at all, that the previous steel bollard anti-pedestrian fencing that he mocked as a candidate is a useful barrier and that Border Patrol personnel prefer its see-through quality.

The whole dispute, on a practical level, is simply about the level of spending and pace of construction of a type of border hardening that has been underway for years.

Democrats find this border hardening to be mostly wasteful; Republicans say it’s important. To any halfway competent president, this is the most banal kind of political controversy imaginable. If you have a pet project that you want to get money for, you have to offer your opponents something in exchange.

The wall itself is stupid

Trump’s problem here is that the wall is a bad idea and his own allies and staff know it’s a bad idea. The sort of illicit border crossings that pedestrian fences are supposed to prevent have already fallen to very low levels (perhaps because of the already-build barriers, perhaps for other reasons), and the immigration conversation has moved on to other things — most notably, the treatment of asylum-seeking families from Central America.

Because the wall is bad, immigration hawks don’t want to make any meaningful concessions in order to get it.

Anytime talks seem to be getting off the ground about some kind of swap of help for DREAMers in exchange for wall money, the hawks swoop in with a bunch of other demands that have nothing to do with the wall.

It’s reasonable that conservatives don’t want to make concessions for the wall because the wall is bad. But by the same token, if your political allies don’t want to make concessions to get something because the thing in question is bad, the smart approach is to just let it slide, not throw a tantrum.

But instead, we have Donald Trump.

A crisis of leadership

First the shutdown and now the “emergency” both stem from the basic fact that Trump will neither admit his whole wall spiel was BS nor decide to act like someone who genuinely wants a wall and make a deal to get it.

Instead, a lot of people’s time and money is now going to be wasted on litigation while money is taken away from duly authorized programs and sent instead to a construction project nobody really wants. This is not the worst thing anyone has ever done in American politics — it’s not even close to being the worst thing Trump has ever done — but it’s arguably the most absurd.

And it raises, once again, the fundamental question about Trump. When you have a president who can’t handle relatively banal problems like a disagreement over a $5 billion appropriation for a pet project, what’s going to happen to us when a real crisis hits?