Danger of foreign adventures increases
Donald Trump’s wall that will never be built and the government shutdown are really about the 2020 presidential elections, writes Eddie Ford
Now over a month long, the government shutdown that began on December 22 is the longest in United States history.
The current situation began when president Donald Trump refused to sign a bipartisan congressional spending plan unless it set aside $5.7 billion for his mad wall with Mexico - the border being 1,954 miles long and crossing vast deserts and mountains in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. As a result of the shutdown, an estimated 460,000 employees are still working without pay, and another 340,000 workers have been placed on leave - some of them having to survive on charity and free biscuits from Starbucks. More than 1,500 appeals have been set up on crowdfunding site GoFundMe, seeking a financial lifeline to pay rent or feed their children.
On January 20 Trump’s so-called “compromise” proposal was rejected by the Democrats, unleashing the inevitable barrage of presidential tweets. Very generously, or not, the president offered to cease legal action (“extend protection”) for three years against roughly 700,000 ‘dreamers’ - who were brought to the US illegally as children and also approximately 300,000 refugees facing an end to temporary legal status. Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, immediately denounced Trump’s move as “hostage taking” and, needless to say, his proposal was dismissed out of hand by senior Democrats, even as the president was speaking. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives - where her party now has a majority - described Trump’s plan as a “compilation of several previously rejected initiatives” that would not provide lasting security for ‘dreamers’ and other groups. Democrats are demanding that Trump reopen the government by signing the existing congressional spending plan before any further negotiations on immigration.
At one stage Trump had been talking about declaring a state of emergency in order to bypass Congressional approval for the new border wall - but the president’s advisors must have reminded him that this would almost certainly have been shot down in the courts. Slightly crazily, two weeks ago Trump reasserted his belief that Mexico would pay for the new wall by stating it would be done through the new trade bill he had arranged in 2018. But this is for the birds - everyone knows that Mexico will never do any such thing.
Of course, the idea that millions of Mexicans and others are ‘invading’ the US across the deserts and mountains is total nonsense. In fiscal year 2017, the US Customs and Border Protection agency apprehended 303,916 at the southern border. Of that group, 13% claimed credible fear of returning to their home country, the first legal step in seeking asylum. Putting this into perspective, also in 2017, more than 606,926 people entered the US legally by air or sea - not land - then overstaying their visas and disappearing amongst family and friends. By contrast, back in 2000, the CBP detained 1.6 million illegal border crossers. It is important to remember that the Trump administration has a habit of using ‘illegal’ to describe completely legal actions, such as seeking asylum at the border.
Another important thing to note is that about 654 miles of the southern border already have some sort of barrier, such as fencing - much of it built under the Obama presidency. Indeed, our readers will not be astonished to discover that the Democrats have backed plenty of legislation that restricts immigration. For instance, in February 2018 the Senate voted for a bipartisan plan to spend $25 billion over 10 years to expand the various physical barriers along the border, but at the same time protect the estimated 3.6 million ‘dreamers’. Trump rejected that bill.
Inevitably, Trump’s “compromise” offer angered many Republicans and the far right/alt right - his repeated promises to “build the wall” won him many supporters from that milieu during the 2016 presidential campaign. Senior members of the Trump administration have opposed many aspects of the asylum process, working busily to drastically restrict it, despite many of their efforts being blocked in the courts. Fed up by the latest development, however, the far-right commentator, Ann Coulter, tweeted: “100 miles of border wall in exchange for amnestying millions of illegals. So if we grant citizenship to a billion foreigners, maybe we can finally get a full border wall.” In the same vein, the anti-immigration group NumbersUSA dismissed Trump’s plan as “a loser for the American workers, who were central to his campaign promises” - arguing that this kind of amnesty deal “will incentivise more caravans, more illegal border-crossers and more visa overstayers at the expense of the most vulnerable American workers, who have to compete with the illegal labour force”.
On the other hand, several opinion polls have indicated that a majority of Americans disapprove of Trump’s border wall - an average of all the polls compiled by RealClearPolitics currently finds that 55.3% of Americans disapprove of the scheme.
Not one inch of Trump’s wall has been built, of course, and probably never will be - the idea that 1,954 miles, or anything like it, will be constructed is pure fantasy. What the government shutdown1 and wall rhetoric is really about is the 2020 presidential elections, which will be fought on immigration - Trump portraying the Democrats as soft on the question. The president, however, will want to be seen as tough, but ‘humane’ - the Democrats would rather irresponsibly shut down the government than accept his “generous” offer on the ‘dreamers’. We saw intimation of the ugly campaign to come at the beginning of the week, when Trump tweeted that there would be “no big push to remove the 11,000,000-plus people who are here illegally” - before adding: “But be careful, Nancy!” (ie, Nancy Pelosi).
All you can say is that an issue like immigration has serious traction in the US - as it does in Europe and Britain. The single biggest reason, or motivational factor, for the Brexit vote was undoubtedly immigration (plus giving the establishment a good kicking).
Trump’s wall, combined with the shutdown and tough talk on immigration, takes place as we await the imminent arrival of the Mueller report and stories about Michael Cohen being “directed” to lie before Congress (which Mueller claims is inaccurate). The report will have enough explosive stuff for the Democrats to begin impeachment, having a majority in the House of Representatives - but it will not go anywhere, as it requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate, which will never happen. But it shows the febrile nature of present-day US politics that you have a president with impeachment hanging over him who is playing the immigration game for all it is worth.
Just like with Theresa May and Brexit, it is hard to see a way out of the current impasse in the US. Yet, as I write, stories are circulating that on January 24 the Senate will vote on a pair of bills that could possibly end the shutdown. The first, a Republican-backed bill, would meet Trump’s demand for a border wall in exchange for “temporary protections” for young, undocumented immigrants. The second would extend funding through to February 8 for the agencies that are currently closed. Senate majority and minority leaders, Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer, announced the compromise, if that is what it is, on the Senate floor on January 22 - Schumer predicting, or hoping, that the short-term funding proposal “could break us out of the morass we are in”.
However, it is far from certain that either bill can garner enough support to pass the chamber. Democrats - many implacably opposed to granting funding for the wall, as it is a “medieval solution” to a “21st-century problem” - will probably have the votes to block Trump’s proposal, while the Democrats’ proposed funding extension would have to win the support of at least 13 Republicans to reach the 60-vote threshold. The gridlock could well continue for some time yet.
Given the volatile state of US politics, it is a matter of genuine concern that the president has extensive powers to take initiatives abroad. His domestic agenda may be severely restricted, but, when it comes to taking military action, it is an entirely different matter - even if in theory the president is required to notify Congress within 48 hours of any intention to commit armed forces to military action and needs Congressional authorisation for action lasting more than 60 days.2
But we all know that there was no vote for the US wars in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Rather, in the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident - or fabrication - we were asked to believe that the Vietnamese ‘navy’ (they had none) had attacked the US navy. The US literally flattened Laos, making it the most bombed country per square-metre on earth - even more than Germany during World War II.
In this context, the prospective summit between Trump and North Korean ‘supreme leader’ Kim Jong-un is not a sign that peace is about to break out - more like a clearing of the decks for something else to happen, especially as the announcement of the summit more or less coincided with talk from Trump about militarising space with his Space Force. This involves, it seems, sensors “placed among the stars” that can detect missile launches and Trump will demand that the technology is funded in his next budget. On January 17 he said: “Our goal is simple: to ensure we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States - anywhere, any time, any place”. Naturally, he identified four countries that pose a “missile threat” to Americans on home soil - North Korea, Iran, Russia and China, with North Korea apparently posing an “extraordinary threat”.
Trump clearly has the power to start something off, though his most likely target is Iran - just bomb it mercilessly from the safety of the clouds, destroy the infrastructure and maybe sponsor the nationalist break-up of the country. Therefore it is genuinely ominous that the US is sponsoring a summit in Poland for mid-February focusing on the question of Iran, with some 70 countries participating. Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, has said that the main aim of the summit is “changing the behaviour” of Iran - which could mean imposing more sanctions or some sort of military action. Seems to be a pattern emerging here …
For a besieged president, feeling the heat at home, a foreign adventure would be a most welcome diversion - whip up patriotism and get those extra votes to secure the 2020 election.