WASHINGTON ― It should be obvious by now that Mexico is not going to pay for “the wall” ― if a wall is actually built at all.
Significant parts of the government are shut down right now over a dispute about how much money Congress ― and therefore taxpayers, not Mexico ― will dole out for new barrier construction along the U.S.-Mexico border.
But don’t tell that to Republicans. For the most part this week, Republicans refused to contradict President Donald Trump’s contortionist explanations for why, technically, sort of, in a roundabout way, Mexico is footing the bill.
“I certainly understand the president’s logic, and I’ve always got it,” Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) told HuffPost Friday, “that if we have more jobs in America, because of an improved [North American Free Trade] Agreement, that it’ll be more economic tax base for the United States.”
The new trade agreement negotiated last year has not yet been approved by Congress and does not mention the wall. If that explanation wasn’t confusing or tenuous enough, Marshall also said the wall was “an investment.”
“This is the best $5.7 billion of American taxpayer money that we can use,” he said. “It’ll come back in multiples for decades to come if it keeps out drugs, if it keeps out terrorists, if it keeps out criminals.”
Over the course of more than two dozen conversations this week, Republicans tried their best to evade questions about who’s paying for the wall, though some members acknowledged it was not Mexico. But plenty of GOP lawmakers were happy to accept Trump’s arguments that Mexico would eventually pay, that new trade deals would offset the cost, or that, hey, doesn’t a wall pay for itself anyway?
“We are paying as taxpayers for not having border security,” Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) said. “I can tell you that. We are already.”
Roe added that “the wall will pay for itself, absolutely,” but he acknowledged that Mexico wasn’t actually footing the bill. “The taxpayers are gonna pay for it, but we’re paying for it already,” Roe said. “Whether we don’t protect our border or we do ― we’re paying the bill.”
That was essentially the argument that Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) offered as well. He said if America built the wall, “by virtue of the reduced illegal immigration that it will cause, it’ll be a great savings.”
Republicans also said that the tax cuts they passed at the end of 2017 would pay for themselves. The theory ― which most experts considered ridiculous ― was that lower taxes would boost economic growth, lead to higher corporate profits, and then more tax revenues from those profits. The theory proved wrong: despite solid growth in 2018, corporate tax revenue for the year fell 15 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Of the Republicans who took the president’s side that Mexico would pay for the wall, the explanation was overwhelmingly that, because of the new trade agreement, Mexico was technically paying for it.
“The president’s point is that, indirectly, we will be receiving more revenue from them as a result of the new fair trade law, and I think he’s got a good point there,” Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) said.
“In an indirect sense, he’s right. In a direct sense, no, they’re not writing us a check,” he conceded.
Trump used to say Mexico would make a direct payment of $5 to $10 billion, an idea so absurd that Trump himself begged the president of Mexico in 2017 not to contradict him publicly, saying it was “the least important thing that we are talking about” anyway. But Trump has shifted to claiming that Mexico would pay indirectly thanks to the new trade deal, which would not be true even if Congress approves the latest version of the deal.
The idea that trade pays for the wall is confusing ― which may be why Republicans have latched on to it.
“The president says the Mexicans will be paying for the wall through NAFTA,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said.
HuffPost asked Thune if that made any sense, given that the new agreement doesn’t even mention the wall.
“Well look, however the wall gets paid for, I think everybody agrees that border security’s a pretty important issue, especially now,” Thune said.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) sort of acknowledged that the trade talking point made no sense, but still plowed through it anyway.
“I think what the president’s talking about is this is a term of reference that under NAFTA that we’re going to save a lot of money,” Shelby said, adding that even though NAFTA and the wall are entirely separate things, “It’s still all part of the government. That’s what he’s talking about.”
Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) said he was saying it even before Trump was saying it: The trade agreement will indirectly pay for the wall.
“Because we got a better deal,” Gibbs answered, going on to explain that stopping “a bunch of illegals” from coming to America would also pay for the wall. “That’s probably a bigger savings,” he said.
The only way the new trade deal could pay for the wall, according to Lori Wallach of Public Citizen, would be if it added a 20 percent tariff on all imports from Mexico. It doesn’t.
Many Republicans offered agnostic arguments about whether Mexico would pay for the wall.
Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) repeatedly said he has “no idea.” Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) said we would have to “wait and see” on that. And Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) said he’s “struggled with the mechanics of ‘Hey, it’s going to be because of incongruous trade, it’s going to be because of this and that.’”
“It’ll be fascinating to see how that math actually works,” he said.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said the president has his arguments on Mexico funding wall construction, and he would leave those to him. Asked if he bought those arguments, Thornberry said it wasn’t for him to “buy or sell the argument.”
“I focus on the things that I think are important for national security, and I will continue to do that,” he said. And when we commented that he was looking at us like we’re crazy for even asking the question, Thornberry agreed. “You are crazy,” he said.
Many other Republicans ducked the question entirely. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (R-Ind.) remained completely silent and kept walking while we trailed behind him asking about Mexico paying for the wall, as well as his thoughts on Trump declaring a national emergency to circumvent Congress to build his barrier.
Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) said he wasn’t “going to comment on that at the moment,” though, with some prodding, he said, “from an accounting standard, not directly, but indirectly, there’s a lot of transactions between our two countries.”
Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.) repeatedly said his concern was border security, not who was paying for a wall. “You can ask me that question as many times as you want,” Mitchell said. “You’re not going to trap me into a conversation about whether Mexico is paying because it’s not my problem, nor my concern.”
You’re not going to trap me into a conversation about whether Mexico is paying because it’s not my problem, nor my concern. Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.)
And Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) was a wall of talking points.
“No one wins in a shutdown, no one wins if the border’s not secure,” he said, repeating the phrase like a mantra in response to further questions, before going silent.
There were some Republicans who broke with Trump. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), and Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) all said it’s been clear that Mexico is not paying for the construction of a 2,000-mile barrier.
Asked what he thought of arguments like the trade deal paying for the wall, or that the wall would somehow pay for itself, Amash said those rationales were “silly.”
“That’s not money going to the wall from Mexico. It doesn’t go to the Treasury that way and then go to the wall,” he said.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also told HuffPost this week that he “never thought Mexico was gonna pay for the wall.”
But those were the exceptions. By and large, Republicans were willing to accept Trump’s trade deal argument, even though if it were true, there would be no need to shut down the government to try to force Democrats to support a $5 billion in wall appropriation funding.
This week, some 800,000 federal employees are missing their first paychecks since funding lapsed in December. And if the shutdown continues for several more weeks, it will imperil housing vouchers and food assistance for millions.
If you expected Republicans to break with Trump over the shutdown anytime soon ― like perhaps Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) choosing to hold a vote on a clean funding bill and then Republicans in both chambers voting to override the president’s veto ― just remember those GOP members who refuse to break with Trump in favor of reality.