WASHINGTON – Remember that multi-billion-dollar “great wall” that presidential candidate Donald Trump said Mexico would pay for?
Well, it turns out that under President Donald Trump, you, the American taxpayer, will be paying for it instead.
A promise that Trump made the day he rode down his escalator in Trump Tower to announce his candidacy and then repeated, in city after city, has quietly fallen by the wayside. Proposals floated recently by the administration and congressional leaders vary from spending $1.6 billion in the coming year to start building the wall to the $20 billion that Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer offered to support last week.
So far, none of those plans appears to include any language that would seek reimbursement of the cost from Mexico, whose leaders have stated flatly that they would not be paying.
Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, conceded as much during a Fox News interview last week. “In one way or another, it’s possible that we could get the revenue from Mexico but not directly from their government,” he said.
He added that the U.S. could possibly recover some money through visa fees or through the ongoing renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Kelly also said Trump’s thoughts about the wall were not “fully informed” during the campaign, and that the president had subsequently “adjusted” his views.
Trump, presumably in response to Kelly’s remarks to Fox and his reported statements to Democratic lawmakers earlier that Trump had “evolved” from his original position, insisted that his views on the wall had not changed one bit.
“The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it,” he wrote on Twitter the following morning.
Trump’s White House did not respond to queries about the issue.
Republicans who worked for Trump’s rivals during the presidential primary campaign said he got away with his “making Mexico pay” promise because no one took it seriously.
“It was just another laugh line,” said Rick Tyler, who worked for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. “This is a great publicity stunt gone awry.”
“We thought it was preposterous,” said John Weaver, who ran Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s campaign, adding that he was more dismayed that Republicans in Congress went along with the idea.
“It’s one thing for this knucklehead to come down the escalator and say Mexico is going to pay for the wall. It’s another thing for these members of Congress to agree with him,” Weaver said. “Yeah, he’s a fool. But what are they?”
Unlike many of his campaign positions that were drafted weeks or months into his presidential run, Trump’s promise to build a structure along the southern border was central to his June 2015 candidacy announcement.
“I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively,” Trump boasted. “I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”
That vow drew an enthusiastic response, and Trump began including it in his standard stump speech. Often it would be in a call-and-response format, with Trump asking: “Who’s going to pay for the wall?” and the crowd shouting: “Mexico!”
Over the coming months, Trump explained that his wall would be at least 30 feet tall, and extend deep underground to prevent people from tunneling underneath it. At a December 2015 visit to Manassas, Virginia, Trump even went into construction details.
“It’s going to be made of hardened concrete, and it’s going to be made out of rebar. That’s steel,” Trump said in response to a boy’s question. “And we’re going to set (the rebar) in nice, heavy foundations.”
Trump’s commitment to forcing Mexico to pay, though, was called into question in August 2016 during his visit to that nation to meet with its president, Enrique Peña Nieto. The Mexican leader said later that he brought up the topic and stated clearly that Mexico would not pay for the wall, and that Trump did not try to pursue the matter.
And when the two leaders spoke by phone just a week into the Trump administration a year ago, Trump reportedly acknowledged that Mexico wouldn’t pay for the wall but asked Peña Nieto not to mention that publicly, so as to avoid embarrassing the new U.S. president.
“You cannot say anymore that the United States is going to pay for the wall. I am just going to say that we are working it out,” Trump said, according to a leaked transcript of the call. “Believe it or not, this is the least important thing that we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important (thing to) talk about.”
Since then, though, Trump has returned to claiming that Mexico would pay for the wall’s construction -– “in some fashion.”
“Mexico will pay. In some form, Mexico will pay for the wall,” Trump told reporters at a recent meeting with GOP lawmakers at the presidential retreat at Camp David.
Trump did not elaborate, so what precisely that “form” would be remains unclear.
Tyler said he doesn’t think any of those details matter. Most of the country dislikes and distrusts Trump, while his hardcore base of support ― the 25 to 30 percent of the nation that polls show still supports him strongly ― isn’t really interested in a wall as much as an end to undocumented immigration, Tyler said.
“They don’t care. His base is a group that feels like the reason their wages haven’t gone up all these years is illegal immigration and bad trade deals,” Tyler said. “That’s what they’ve been led to believe.”