President Donald Trump’s most famous book, The Art of the Deal, says “you can’t con people, at least not for long. You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.”
It’s clear after Trump’s 2019 State of the Union that he hopes he can keep the con going a little longer. During the long speech, Trump called on the country to “reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution, and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good” — but as much as Americans might badly be looking to heal the divisions torn open by his election, his words likely sounded hollow to Americans who just lived through the longest shutdown in American history.
With another government shutdown deadline looming in just over a week, Trump needs to prove that he can do more than talk about unity. He desperately needs to make a deal with Democrats to keep the government funded.
Trump would do well to take his own advice on dealmaking.
Trump’s unconvincing attempt to be a hopeful unifier
Trump’s main goal on Tuesday night seemed to be to rebrand himself as a unifying leader pushing a hopeful message.
“Together, we can break decades of political stalemate,” Trump said. “We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future. The decision is ours to make.”
Trump is trying to rebrand himself as positive and unifying and it doesn't even seem like he's buying it pic.twitter.com/eIGxUupBwU— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 6, 2019
Those feel-good words — which Trump reportedly groused to aides were too soft on Democrats — are easy enough to read off a teleprompter, as Trump did on Tuesday, and as he’s done during his previous primetime televised speeches. But the president’s harsher tone during unscripted moments reveals he’s anything but the unifying figure he portrayed himself to be during the State of the Union.
During his interview on CBS that aired last Sunday, for example, Trump said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “doesn’t mind human trafficking” and added, “You have people dying all over the country because of people like Nancy Pelosi.”
Less than a week ago Trump criticized Democrats as “the Party of late term abortion, high taxes, Open Border and Crime!” on Twitter. (He even used his speech to call out Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam on abortion.)
The New York Times reported that Trump savaged a number of Democrats during a private lunch with television anchors held just hours before the big speech, including calling Joe Biden “dumb,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer a “nasty son of a bitch,” and mocking Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam for “choking like a dog” over his handling of revelations that his school yearbook page featured an egregiously racist photo.
Trump’s empty State of the Union platitudes, as divorced from reality as they are, didn’t mean much. But the speech was notable in at least one respect — it provided the latest evidence that the man behind Art of the Deal is not actually good at striking deals.
Trump wants Congress to do his bidding, but didn’t offer Democrats anything
The State of the Union came as Trump tries to find a way to avoid instigating a second government shutdown over his unpopular proposal to build a border wall along the southern border.
Trump suggested last week that he might use Tuesday’s speech to declare a legally fraught state of emergency that could perhaps allow him to bypass Congress and build the wall by executive fiat. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly cautioned him against the move, and Trump didn’t end up going through with it.
Instead, Trump offered the same sales pitch that he’s been making for the wall for months — one based on false premises about immigrant crime (they actually commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans) and drugs (smuggled drugs mostly come through the border via ports of entry, and a wall would do nothing to prevent that).
“Now, Republican and Democrats must join forces again to confront an urgent national crisis,” Trump said. “Congress has 10 days left to pass a bill that will fund our government, protect our homeland, and secure our very dangerous southern border. Now is the time for Congress to show the world that America is committed to ending illegal immigration, and putting the ruthless coyotes, cartels, drug dealers, and human traffickers out of business.”
Trump describes situation at border as "urgent national crisis."— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 6, 2019
"Congress has 10 days...Now is the time for Congress to show the world that America is committed to ending illegal immigration & putting ruthless coyotes, cartels, drug dealers, & human traffickers out of business" pic.twitter.com/tmv7ws8p4h
There’s just one problem — America has already decided it’s not buying what Trump is trying to sell. Immigration fear-mongering was a central theme of Trump’s messaging during the midterm campaign cycle last fall, and Republicans ended up losing 40 seats and control of the House of Representatives. The shutdown that began when Trump refused to sign a short-term government funding bill that didn’t include wall funding ended with his disapproval ratings at new highs and a majority of voters still opposed to the proposal.
The ineffectiveness of Trump’s sales pitch could be heard in the House chamber on Tuesday night. Democrats audibly groaned when he started stoking fears about migrant caravans. Sen. Kamala Harris (CA) shook her head, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) rolled her eyes, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi clapped at Trump when she wasn’t focused on reading material she brought for the occasion.
Nancy catching up on paperwork like a boss. pic.twitter.com/0r0m4MN18P— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) February 6, 2019
While Trump called upon Congress to do what he wants to avoid another shutdown, he didn’t offer Democrats anything in return. He still hasn’t. But that’s not how negotiations work.
Avoiding another shutdown is all about how far Trump is willing to go
Trump could still declare a national emergency before February 15, when a deal funding the Department of Homeland Security will need to be reached in order to avert a second shutdown in three months. But there’s another way the self-professed deal artist could avoid instigating a second shutdown and strike a deal with Congress to build his wall — the tried-and-true method of offering those who don’t support the proposal on its merits something in exchange for backing it.
Democrats, after all, have signaled that they aren’t totally opposed to the idea of funding the wall in exchange for something they want. Schumer was receptive last year to a deal that would’ve given Trump $25 billion for the wall — five times more money than he’s currently seeking — in exchange for providing DREAMers with a pathway to citizenship. But immigration hardliners in the administration gave up the game by backing out of the deal as soon as it became clear they’d have to give something to get something.
There are indications Democrats would no longer be receptive to such a deal, but Trump could at least try. But instead of offering concessions to undocumented immigrants or anyone else, Trump has blustered and bluffed. That remained true during the State of the Union, when he again publicized individuals cases of immigrant crime to make a case that undocumented immigrants are scary criminals.
Trump recognizes a number of families who have been the victims of immigrant crime to try and smear immigrants as criminals.— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 6, 2019
(Undocumented immigrants in fact commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans.) pic.twitter.com/0r1rh54R46
This sales pitch has already failed. But instead of making a different offer, Trump focused on using his biggest speech of the year to portray himself as someone we already know he’s not.
No matter what, Trump will say he’s building the wall. In fact, he already has.
Trump’s decision not to use State of the Union to declare an emergency or make a real offer to Democrats hints at another way he could get out of the wall mess he’s created. Even if he doesn’t end up getting any money for the wall, Trump will still say he’s building it all the same.
The president has already been using this strategy both on the campaign trail last year and during the recent shutdown fight. Last Thursday, for instance, Trump spent the day alternately bragging about how much wall construction is already underway, while still urging Congress to give him more money for it. Those incoherent talking points are misleading, as Congress has in fact given him no money for the wall.
For Trump, however, merely saying he’s building the wall is apparently enough. The long con continues.
The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.