Let’s start here, from the NYTimes:
Mr. Trump is not expected to declare the state of emergency during Tuesday’s address. But he continues to threaten that he will divert funding for other military and infrastructure projects to build the wall, with or without congressional approval. He has told people close to him that he views the threat as his last remaining leverage in the fight.
This, from our president, is an interesting line of thinking. He recently said there’s a “good chance” he’ll have to declare a state of emergency—an attempt to bypass Congress in an attempt to fund and build the border ball—and he continues to strike an aggressive pose even after the failure of the shutdown to produce the money or the popular will he needed. It could be a bluff, of course, and that would be in line with what we’ve seen from Trump on previous gambits. The problem now is, who is he supposed to be bluffing?
Democrats are, quite simply, never going to budge. They faced Trump down during the shutdown, and when the heat turned up as the days turned into a month, the public blamed Trump and didn’t even like the wall very much (and more than two-thirds of them today are opposed to a national emergency). If Trump wants a reprise of this fight, Democrats won’t exactly be eager, but they’ll be confident in their victory. There’s no reason for them to shrink even an inch.
But maybe the Democrats aren’t his target—maybe he’s trying to bluff Senate Republicans. A Washington Post story by Greg Sargent outlined a process by which Nancy Pelosi could force a Senate vote on any state of emergency Trump declares. That would mean no more tacit and/or quiet support for the president—if Senate Republicans are put on the spot, they’ll have to declare not only their support for the wall, but also their support for both a completely unpopular national state of emergency and the prospect of another shutdown. Or, perhaps worse, they’ll have to stand against Trump and face his famous wrath. It’s a nightmare scenario.
At the moment, they’re able to hide in plain sight by not quite endorsing those tactics, but not being forced to commit potential suicide by directly opposing Trump and losing support from the MAGA base. If they’re forced to pick a side, there’s really no right choice.
The process is pretty simple: Pelosi could force a House vote on a resolution nullifying any state of emergency Trump declares—which would, of course, be successful in the Democrat-controlled chamber—and then the Senate would have to hold their own vote. There are a few ways to sidestep for McConnell and company, but they all involve directly avoiding the resolution by a last-minute rule change or an up-and-down vote, both of which have the same effect of overtly supporting Trump’s state of emergency. And they can’t delay—it would all have to happen in the span of a month.
Republicans are already scared of this prospect, and McConnell has tried to warn Trump of tepid support. From the Times:
Anxiety over the damage being inflicted on the party is growing. Last week, in a one-on-one meeting with the president, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, reportedly warned Mr. Trump that declaring a national emergency to build his wall would almost certainly spark a rebellion within his party — and a vote to overrule him.
And the list of possible defections is growing, even as sell-outs like Lindsey Graham continue to parrot the Trump line:
“It would be a bad precedent, I think, for the president to decide to invoke national security as a way to bypass a congressional logjam,” said Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania. “And I can imagine future presidents using that for purposes I would find very objectionable.”
That sentiment has been expressed by about a dozen Republican senators, publicly and privately, including Roy Blunt of Missouri, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Marco Rubio of Florida, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and John Cornyn of Texas, who is considered to be among the most influential members of his party on immigration.
At the moment, the president’s clout within his own party looks more precarious than ever. As long as the rank-and-file voters are with Trump, Republicans in Congress will be afraid to openly oppose him, but the minute he loses that support, or even the perception of it, the growing divisions will spill into the open. The shutdown was a serious blunder on Trump’s part, and the response of the American people eroded the image of unified support on the American right. If that trend continues, Senate Republicans will jump ship, and the quickest way to reach that endpoint is for Trump to blow the rest of his political capital chasing a border wall that has become, at this point, no better than a white whale. It would be smarter to cut his losses, but it seems like his ego can’t tolerate losing the wall that he has stubbornly made the symbol of his entire presidency.
That might be a good place to end, but I want to note one corollary to this mess, which is that nominally standing on Trump’s side of any fight is practically suicidal in the long term. We’ve now seen too many examples to count of the president betraying the people who stand by him the minute it suits him, and now Senate Republicans are in the crosshairs. Many of them became Trump’s biggest cheerleaders when it was convenient, but now he’s pushed them into an uncomfortable game of political brinkmanship, and no matter what path they choose—hurt the country by supporting a totally unnecessary state of emergency, or hurt themselves by voting against Trump—they’re going to suffer. Thus always to Trump’s “friends.”