ANALYSIS - Consider Donald Trump the threatener-in-chief. It’s simply how the president starts any negotiation he deems worthy of having.
The president has made countless threats about everything from nuclear war with North Korea to firing various Cabinet officials to cutting off foreign aid to shuttering legal points of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border to trying again this year to push a health care overhaul bill through both chambers of Congress.
He’s made good on some, but more often he has reversed himself and not followed through, dismissing those changes of heart by instead attacking his foes. Whichever outcome on any given issue, it doesn’t seem to matter to Americans responding to polls: His approval rating hovers around 40 percent regardless.
He was at it again, kind of, as he took questions from reporters Tuesday in the Oval Office during a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, when he was asked about his threat to close the border ports unless Democrats agree to his demands on immigration policy.
Trump has not really defined lately what he wants other than an evergreen demand for more money from lawmakers for his proposed border wall — he has dropped his talk about “steel slats.” But Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders earlier Tuesday told reporters in the White House’s South Lawn driveway — the new de facto briefing room — following a hit on usually pro-Trump Fox News that her boss wants Democrats to make clear to what they would agree.
(Notably, many lawmakers from both parties are on the record on the topic via several immigration votes since he took office.)
Eager to keep his threat alive while not committing to a single policy move, Trump veered from position to position.
“I haven’t made that intention known,” he said at one point before adding: “I’m ready to do that.”
Like Sanders in the driveway and a Department of Homeland Security official on a media call earlier, he pinned fixing the whole situation at the border — where even Obama-era DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson now says there is a “crisis” due to a dramatic increase in attempted crossings and apprehensions — on Congress.
“Congress has to meet quickly and make a deal,” Trump said without describing what he would sign. That’s a move that has frustrated even many GOP leaders and members several times before, leaving them grasping for what to put in legislation.
But, after jumping from position to position, Trump was back to his threatener-in-chief role before reporters’ brief time in the Oval Office came to an end.
“If we don’t make a deal with Congress, the border’s going to be closed,” he declared hours after Sanders refused to give a deadline by which he would give that potential order. “100 percent.”
Only, nothing in Trump’s White House is ever that certain.
Perhaps Trump will turn his threat into a policy order when he visits the California-Mexico border on Friday. Or perhaps reporters will still be asking him about it in the Oval Office next week.
Joyce Vance, a U.S. attorney in Alabama under President Barack Obama now with the University of Alabama, predicted in a tweet that the president — as he has many times before — likely will return to immigration when he feels it is politically helpful.
“Trump’s default when there is threatening news is to create a crisis on the border. Why is Trump threatening to close the border when even GOP Reps oppose it?” she wrote. “The controversy distracts the news cycle & perhaps reminds of what power Trump has if he doesn’t get his way.”