Tweeting about The Wall is Trump’s happy place – and he’s back there because he’s scared

Facing the encroaching Mueller investigation and the prospect of dealing with a Democratic House, Trump has retreated to ground on which he feels secure.

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Trump spent the holiday break tweeting vigorously about the “Wall”. In fact, since 23 December, he has tweeted about The Wall no fewer than 20 times. “Drones and all of the rest are wonderful and lots of fun, but it is only a good old fashioned Wall that works!” he tweeted on 23 December, adding later that afternoon “We need Border Security, and as EVERYONE knows, you can’t have Border Security without a Wall. The Drones & Technology are just bells and whistles. Safety for America!”

His ongoing tirade continued through Christmas Eve, as the “Trump Shutdown” dragged on, leaving government departments unfunded and staff without paychecks over Christmas. “Virtually every Democrat we are dealing with today strongly supported a Border Wall or Fence,” he tweeted (they have not.) “It was only when I made it an important part of my campaign, because people and drugs were pouring into our Country unchecked, that they turned against it.”

His position on The Wall has flip-flopped more than a landed salmon. During the campaign, it became his core promise, and central to that promise was the idea that Mexico would pay for it. This idea became one of his most popular call-and-response moments with crowds at rallies.

Obviously, however, Mexico has consistently indicated that it would, of course, not be paying to build Trump’s folly. In fact, because much of the border follows either rivers or traverses difficult geography, building a solid wall all across all 1,933 miles of the US-Mexico border would be impossible.

But now he is bending into the kind of rhetorical contortions that would give MC Escher a migraine in order to justify forcing the US taxpayer to pay for his preposterous wall. “The complete Wall will be built with the Shutdown money plus funds already in hand. The reporting has been inaccurate on the point. The problem is, without the Wall, much of the rest of Dollars are wasted!” he tweeted on Christmas Eve, later adding “At some point the Democrats not wanting to make a deal will cost our Country more money than the Border Wall we are all talking about” (it will not).

Trump has flip-flopped on the material of the wall, changing it from his promise of “solid concrete” to a wall made of metal slats in order for it to be “see-through”. But his main broken promise is the one that American taxpayers would not have to pay “a cent” for its construction.

Of course, that one was a lie too. In fact, just before Christmas, Trump forced the government into shutdown because the Democrats would not offer him money from the federal budget in order to pay for its construction.

Most of the time, a government shutdown is a time for the frantic passing-off of blame by both sides. But this was an exception: Trump was more than happy to take ownership of this shutdown when challenged by incoming House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer in an extraordinary and fractious public meeting in December.

But Trump continued to thrash about on the subject as the holiday period wore on. “We are already building and renovating many miles of Wall, some complete. Democrats must end Shutdown and finish funding,” he tweeted, still on Christmas Eve.

Public opinion was not bending in his favour. As the backlash against the administration for the horrific deaths of several children in US border patrol custody continued, the president finally addressed it – by attempting to blame the Democrats. “Any deaths of children or others at the Border are strictly the fault of the Democrats and their pathetic immigration policies,” he said on 29 December.

When this line of attack failed to gain traction, he tried another new approach. “MEXICO IS PAYING FOR THE WALL through the many billions of dollars a year that the U.S.A. is saving through the new Trade Deal, the USMCA”, he tweeted on New Year’s Eve (it is not).

He also attempted to give some historical grounding to his ridiculous idea: “Throughout the ages some things NEVER get better and NEVER change. You have Walls and you have Wheels. It was ALWAYS that way and it will ALWAYS be that way! Please explain to the Democrats that there can NEVER be a replacement for a good old fashioned WALL!”

Why has the wall become Trump’s holiday obsession? It might be that he is spooked by the Democrats’ taking control of the House of Representatives – the 116th Congress will begin its work on 3 January, and the new Democratic chairs of several House committees will have subpoena power to investigate whatever they want to within the Trump administration. It may be with one eye already on the 2020 presidential election: several strong Democratic candidates are lining up already, including Elizabeth Warren, the popular Massachusetts senator, who officially announced her candidacy on New Year’s Eve.

Given both of those pressures, it is unsurprising that Trump, wounded by his dismal midterm election results and scared by the prospect of both the ongoing Mueller investigation and additional summonses by congressional Democrats, is retreating to his happy place – the 2016 campaign – and the sloganeering that served him so well back then.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.