WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Donald Trump plans to sign a compromise border security measure in conjunction with declaring a national emergency to secure funding for a border wall, ending for now a bitter standoff with Congress over his signature campaign promise but likely sparking a new constitutional dispute.
The news of Trump’s decision came via Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said he would drop his opposition to the national emergency move in order to advance the government funding measure.
Speaking on the Senate floor Thursday, McConnell sought to reassure lawmakers of the President’s position before taking a vote on the plan, which falls short of providing the $5 billion in border wall funding Trump had demanded. Senators ultimately voted 82-16 to pass it.
“He has indicated he is prepared to sign the bill. He will also be issuing a national emergency declaration at the same time,” the Kentucky Republican said.
His announcement came amid questions about the President’s support for the deal, which was struck by a bipartisan panel of negotiators. Aides had said earlier Thursday that they were concerned Trump might reject the spending compromise — a major shift from earlier this week, when officials indicated privately that he would.
In agreeing to the funding measure, Trump will accept far less than he wanted for the border barrier, a disappointment for a President who vowed both to build the wall and to bring a mastery of negotiation to the job.
Yet the end of one battle only seemed to be the beginning of another. Instead of haggling over government funding, the fight will turn to a debate over presidential power and possible executive overreach.
McConnell’s abrupt announcement Thursday that Trump would sign the spending package — ahead of any official word from the White House on the President’s position — came after a day of consternation among Republican lawmakers and administration officials about whether Trump would sign the bill.
The President’s only public message was a midday tweet indicating he was still mulling the final text of the bill with his team at the White House. Even after McConnell’s announcement, the White House was scrambling to make Trump’s intentions official.
“President Trump will sign the government funding bill, and as he has stated before, he will also take other executive action — including a national emergency — to ensure we stop the national security and humanitarian crisis at the border,” press secretary Sarah Sanders wrote in a statement 25 minutes after McConnell spoke. “The President is once again delivering on his promise to build the wall, protect the border, and secure our great country.”
In the hours leading up to the vote, the President phoned GOP allies on Capitol Hill to ask their advice and vent at some of the bill’s shortcomings, leading many to believe he was backing away from his earlier support of the legislation, according to people familiar with the calls. Trump told multiple allies he was considering not signing the bill.
White House aides spent all morning trying to digest the details of the 1,100-page bill and flag potential snags to the President and to Capitol Hill. In briefings about the bill, the President expressed concern that something might be found buried in the measure after he signed it, leading to embarrassment.
He huddled with his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, along with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and legislative affairs director Shahira Knight in the Oval Office on Thursday afternoon, as they intensely lobbied him to not back away from the bill.
Amid the wrangling, many of the President’s senior advisers stressed he should sign the package to avoid another partial government shutdown, which they said would damage him politically. They said signing a national emergency declaration or some other type of executive action would blunt whatever blowback he received from conservatives.
It wasn’t immediately clear which path Trump would choose to secure border wall funding through a national emergency declaration. White House aides have spent the past several weeks devising various options, which they believe could add up to billions in additional funding.
But many administration officials expect any unilateral action to secure the funding to be met with legal challenges, and McConnell had said previously he would oppose such a move, citing presidential overreach.
He dropped that opposition on Thursday after weeks of remaining staunch in his position, revealing just how worried he was over Trump’s support.
“I’ve indicated to him that I’m going to support the national emergency declaration,” McConnell said.
Reaction from Democratic congressional leaders was swift and negative. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she was considering a legal challenge.
“I may,” Pelosi said when asked about the prospect of challenging Trump in court. “That’s an option and we will review our options.”
“The President is doing an end run around Congress,” the California Democrat added.
Before lawmakers were set to begin voting on the bill Thursday afternoon, many expressed hope — even prayers — the President would approve it.
“I pray” that Trump signs the bill, said Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican who’s the chairman of the Appropriations Committee. He said he had spoken with Trump on Wednesday night and the President was in “good spirits.”
Earlier this week, Trump had signaled to advisers and allies he was inclined to sign the bipartisan deal to avoid another shutdown, and would use executive action to attempt to secure additional border wall dollars.
“I think the President’s evaluating what’s in the bill. He’s also evaluating the authority he has, and I know he’ll be making a decision before the deadline,” Vice President Mike Pence, who is traveling in Warsaw, told reporters Thursday.
In conversations with allies over the past few days, Trump has griped that Republican negotiators were outplayed by their Democratic counterparts, securing a border funding number far smaller than he has spent the last two months demanding.
Privately, Trump has cast GOP’s dealmaking efforts as inadequate and wondered why he, an experienced dealmaker, wasn’t consulted at more regular intervals as the two sides haggled over an agreement. The White House acted largely on the sidelines while congressional negotiators struck a deal.
That was intentional, according to people familiar with the process, who noted that Trump’s attempts at brokering an agreement between lawmakers had proved futile during the record-length government shutdown that ushered in the new year.
To appease the President, aides and some Republican lawmakers have cast the smaller figure, around $1.375 billion, as a down payment that will eventually lead to new wall construction.
Initially, Trump was distressed when he watched Sean Hannity and other Fox News hosts deride the plan, including as he watched recorded versions of prime-time programming during a late-night flight home on Monday from Texas, where he’d held a campaign rally.
After phone calls from the White House, some of the President’s allies took a softer approach, saying the deal was palatable as long as Trump went ahead with unilateral action to secure some funding for the wall.
On Thursday, however, some of those voices returned to their initial skepticism.
“So the president has his hand forced to sign a 1,159 page bill that we KNOW is filled with amnesty, PORK and wiggle room? Total SCAM! @realDonaldTrump wasn’t elected for this,” Laura Ingraham wrote on Twitter. “This bill must NOT be signed by @realDonaldTrump.”