Looming above Washington as Congress and the White House attempt to avert a funding shutdown in only five days’ time, Donald Trump’s central campaign promise to build a wall on the Mexican border threatens to bring the US government to a halt this week in a national display of dysfunction.
On Sunday, even White House officials expressed uncertainty about whether the president would sign a funding bill that did not include money for a wall, which Trump has promised since the first day of his presidential campaign.
“We don’t know yet,” said the White House budget director, Mick Mulvaney, on Fox News Sunday. “We are asking for our priorities.”
The president himself waded into the negotiations on Sunday, holding out two sticks and no carrot. “ObamaCare is in serious trouble,” he tweeted. “The Dems need big money to keep it going – otherwise it dies far sooner than anyone would have thought.”
“The Democrats don’t want money from budget going to border wall despite the fact that it will stop drugs and very bad MS 13 gang members,” he continued, suggesting he would accuse Democrats of being soft on international crime.
But Trump also retreated from a related pledge to the American people: that he would “make Mexico pay” for the wall, which is estimated to cost billions.
“Eventually, but at a later date so we can get started early, Mexico will be paying, in some form, for the badly needed border wall,” the president tweeted, without offering a plan or timeline.
Without a deal, funding for the government will run out at midnight on 28 April, Trump’s 100th day in office. The secretary of homeland security, John Kelly, told CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday he suspected the president would push for the wall.
“He’ll do the right thing, for sure, but I suspect he’ll be insistent about the funding,” Kelly said.
The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, one of the most aggressive anti-immigrant voices in Trump’s administration, also declined to describe the president’s priorities.
“He’ll make those decisions,” Sessions told ABC’s This Week. “I’m not engaged in the budget negotiations.” The attorney general admitted that Mexico would probably not cooperate with the demand to pay, and suggested that trade measures against Mexico could “create the revenue”.
Although the GOP controls Congress and the White House, Republicans from border states and districts have resisted the wall as an expensive measure with limited benefits. Democrats have vociferously opposed it, calling it foolhardy and ineffective. Kelly has said a physical wall alone “will not do the job”. According to an internal department report acquired by Reuters, the wall will cost about $21bn.
The White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, suggested Republicans might be able to obtain some of that money under the cover of general funds for border security.
“It’ll be enough for us to move forward through the end of September for us to get going on the wall,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press.
All three administration officials said they hoped the government would not grind to a halt, potentially costing the US billions and stopping health, safety and veterans benefits. Sessions said he “can’t imagine” Democrats would refuse funding over what he called “a down payment on a wall that can end the lawlessness”.
Mulvaney meanwhile attempted to broker some peace, saying Republicans would be willing to continue healthcare payments into the Affordable Care Act, should the Democrats grant more border funding.
“I don’t think anybody’s trying to get to a shutdown,” he said. “A shutdown is not a desired end, it’s not a tool, it’s not something we want to have.”
Trump’s threats did not appear to faze Democratic leaders, who watched last month as Republicans failed to make a deal within their own party on repealing and replacing Barack Obama’s healthcare reform.
“It’s a political stunt, an obsession for the president that should not shut down our government,” said Senator Dick Durbin, a senior Democrat in the Senate, in an interview with CNN. “Don’t put any poison pills into this process. Let’s just do our responsible, important work of funding this government.”
A shutdown over the proposed wall “would be the height of irresponsibility”, Durbin said.
Republicans in Congress also made clear they did not want to risk an embarrassing and costly shutdown in a fight over the wall. Representative Mark Sanford, whom Trump threatened over the failed healthcare deal last month, told CNN the wall was not worth a shutdown. Senator Marco Rubio told CBS’s Face the Nation that a shutdown could have “very destabilizing” ripples around the world.
“We cannot shut down the government right now,” Rubio said, noting rising tensions with North Korea and US military entanglements in the Middle East. “The last thing we can afford is to send a message to the world that the United States government, by the way, is only partially functioning.”
Trump has abruptly reneged on several campaign promises, including to stay out of the Syrian civil war and to declare China a currency manipulator, but none were so central to his candidacy as his anti-immigrant proposals – aggressive deportations, a travel ban and a wall – two of which he has attempted.
With or without funding, Trump plans to spend the night after the deadline in Pennsylvania, where he will face supporters at a campaign-style rally much like the dozens he held last year, in which he led chants of “build that wall”.