Perhaps the single most signature policy promise of President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign was repeated in speech after speech, at rally after rally: elect him, because he alone could get Mexico to pay to build a massive wall at the United States’ southern border. Now that it is clear Mexico has no intention of paying for the wall, the president is demanding that U.S. taxpayers give him $5 billion to start construction on the project. He made clear this week that he is very seriously considering forcing a partial government shutdown if he doesn’t get to break that promise.
On Thursday, Trump reiterated his desire to veto spending bills that would keep open the government if they do not contain the wall funding he wants. “A possible shutdown if we don’t get the wall money. Very possible. We’re in negotiation. If we don’t get border security, possible shutdown,” he told reporters. Though a September NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found spending the American taxpayers’ dollars to build the wall is even more unpopular than Trump himself, he bragged that “politically speaking, that issue is a total winner.”
But while most of the media headlines frame this as just another tiff between Trump and his opponents in Congress, few seem to willing to note that he is holding the government hostage to a demand that breaks his signature campaign promise.
From day one of the Trump campaign, his vision for “a great, great wall on our southern border,” paid for by Mexico was front and center. He included it in his June 16, 2015 campaign announcement speech. A month later, he told South Carolina voters that he meant it — literally. “You know all of these guys say ‘oh they’ll never pay,’ of course they’ll pay. If you have the right guy negotiating it, that they’ll pay,” he vowed. Trump promised the construction would start on “day one” of his presidency, be completed “within two years time” (under budget), and that Mexico would be “thrilled to be paying for the wall.” When Mexico’s government said in no uncertain terms that it would not be, Trump responded that the wall “just got ten feet higher.”
Over and over, throughout his campaign, he repeated the promise. He revved up his supporters by letting them scream the promise along with him during his speeches that Mexico would fund the project, as they chanted “Build the wall! Build the wall!” Weeks before the 2016 election, he promised again that not a penny of American money would be required: “We’re going to build a wall. We’re going to build the wall, Mexico’s going to pay for the wall — 100 percent.”
Once he actually won, Trump’s tone began to change. First, he said in January 2017 that “Mexico in some form, and there are many different forms, will reimburse us and they will reimburse us for the cost of the wall.” Then he claimed “I’d say very simply that they are going to pay for it. I never said they’re going to pay from the start.” By that summer, he was demurring: “We may fund it through the United States, but ultimately Mexico will pay for wall…”
Dishonest media says Mexico won't be paying for the wall if they pay a little later so the wall can be built more quickly. Media is fake!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 9, 2017
After he got some funding for border security and maintenance of the existing fencing, he began pretending that the wall was already being built. At rallies in the final weeks before the midterms, his supporters even held misleading “Finish the Wall” signs, paid for by his campaign.
In August 2016, Trump said, “Promises, promises, all talk, no action. All talk, no action politicians. They talk, talk, talk, talk. You vote them in with great fanfare, and then they do nothing. With Trump, that’s not going to happen.”
But as Trump approaches the two-year point in his presidency, the wall remains neither built, nor started, nor even funded. This much is clear: Mexico is not paying for the wall, Trump has no intention of keeping that keystone promise, and if any wall is to come, it will be the United States or its creditors on the hook for billions.
Victoria Fleischer and Ryan Koronowski contributed research to this story.