Commentary

Trump’s Wall Won’t Happen

After the 1952 election, before turning the oval office over to Dwight Eisenhower, incumbent president Harry Truman told a visitor, “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

That’s the nature of the presidency, hemmed in by the U.S. system of checks and balances. President-elect Donald Trump, like most CEOs and military officers, expects his orders to be obeyed, which raises important questions about his two most emphatic and consistent campaign promises: restricting immigration and reducing imports. Within the constraints of the presidency, can he really do what he promised?

These are the two pledges he must keep, the very foundation of his campaign; if he can’t deliver, he’ll lose the supporters who brought him victory. But winning significant congressional action on either will be tough, maybe impossible, and at best (for him) very slow. So what can he do? Quite a bit, though on immigration he can’t deliver the goods all by himself.

-Immigration. Building the border wall he has repeatedly promised would be so expensive that he could not do it without congressional authorization. Even with an appropriation, which would face enormous opposition, the environmental requirements and legal challenges from ranchers and others could take years to resolve. Trump has also promised to start deporting illegal immigrants as soon as he takes office and to triple the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, but this too would be expensive and would require appropriations. Most of the 11 million illegal immigrants have been here over five years, so they’re entitled to a hearing before action is taken. The system for conducting those hearings isn’t nearly ready to handle millions of immigrants suddenly flooding it.

So Trump won’t be able to deliver on his immigration promise without lots of congressional cooperation. But he can do plenty else. He can immediately end President Obama’s program that protects illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, which he has promised to do. He can also instruct ICE to change its priorities. Obama told ICE to focus on deporting dangerous illegal immigrants and to go easy on families, which reduced total deportations; Trump could immediately issue his own priorities.

-Imports. Trump has far more latitude on this issue. Under the law, liberalizing trade is hard for a president to do unilaterally, but restricting trade is easy. No one knows if he will actually slap a 45% tariff on Chinese imports or a 35% tariff on Mexican imports, as he has promised to do. But he can do it if he wants to. He can also renegotiate America’s participation in Nafta and pull out if he doesn’t get what he wants, as he has promised. Economists and trade experts think such actions would spark a massive trade war and would be cataclysmic for the U.S. and world economies. But he promised, and if he doesn’t follow through, he won’t be able to blame anyone for stopping him.

Trump has a lot to learn about what a president can and cannot do. But regardless of the constraints he faces, he’ll be under heavy pressure to do what he promised, and fast.

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