“DEALS ARE my art form,” President Donald Trump once wrote. “I like making deals, preferably big deals. That’s how I get my kicks.” They are also how he gets kicked. As The Economist went to press, Mr Trump appeared poised to sign a spending bill that averted another government shutdown, but at further cost to his reputation as an ace negotiator.
Late last year Mr Trump initiated the longest government shutdown in recent history because Congress would not approve the $5.7bn requested for his border wall. After watching his approval ratings drop a few points, he agreed on January 25th to reopen the government for three weeks—without funding for his wall—to give a bipartisan group of lawmakers time to hammer out a compromise on border-security spending.
Both sides, being familiar with the president’s earlier writings, staked out maximalist positions. Mr Trump insisted on his $5.7bn. Democrats wanted to cap the number of beds available for undocumented immigrants arrested within the United States (as opposed to while crossing the border) at around 16,000 per day—well below both current levels and what the administration wanted.
The number of beds matters because of a “bed mandate” that requires America’s immigration police to fill all the beds in immigration detention centres that have been paid for by Congress. The pool of people who are eligible for deportation from America under this administration is far greater than the number of people these places can warehouse, so the more beds there are, the more can be detained for deportation later. The agreement provides funding for more than twice as many beds as Democrats wanted. But it includes around $1.3bn for new physical fencing along the southern border—not just less than Mr Trump demanded, but less than then $1.6bn Democrats offered him just before the shutdown.
Mr Trump initially grumbled that he was “not happy” about the deal. Sean Hannity, a Fox News personality who is among Mr Trump’s strongest backers, called it “a garbage compromise”, while Mark Meadows, who chairs the hard right House Freedom Caucus, said he could not imagine Mr Trump “applauding something so lacking.”
A few days later the spin had changed. Laura Ingraham, a Hannity-ish pundit, spun the modest amount of wall funding as a victory, because Nancy Pelosi, the House majority leader had initially said she would not give Mr Trump a single dollar for his wall. Mr Trump tweeted that the funding provided by Congress “will be hooked up with lots of money from other sources …Will be getting almost $23 BILLION…Regardless of Wall money, it is being built as we speak!” What those other sources might be, or where the figure of $23bn comes from, is a mystery.
The president could yet declare a national emergency at the border and direct Pentagon funds to wall-building. But the White House would almost certainly be sued, and anyway many conservatives quail at the prospect. After all, what would stop a future Democratic president from doing the same thing and filling Texas with solar panels? And if the wall is, according to Mr Trump, already being built, then why declare an emergency? Still, if the deal allows Mr Trump to claim victory, while continuing to thump Democrats on immigration, that may be optimal for him.