Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
With its 2018 budget request, the White House begins the process of admitting that the president’s signature promise was a fantasy.
President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal included cuts for everything: housing, food stamps, infrastructure, the environment. No program or line item was too slight to escape the guillotine. Even the federal budget for bicycle trails, once discovered, got hacked to bits.
Trump’s own promises and priorities were not spared, either. The most glaring cut of all came in the request for the president’s “big, beautiful wall” along the southern border of the U.S. with Mexico. In the 2018 budget, the White House asks Congress for $1.6 billion to build part of the wall. That’s down a billion dollars from the preliminary request in March, a hasty retreat.
Maybe it shouldn’t register as a shock, since this budget is Mick Mulvaney’s baby. But Trump’s border wall, no matter how ridiculous it sounded to half the country, appealed to a lot of the rest. If there was one thing and one thing alone he promised to his voters, again and again, it was to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it.
Make no mistake, though: The 2018 budget is as clear as any signal will get that the push for the border wall is over. The writing was on the wall, if you will, the moment that Trump was sworn in as president. This latest White House budget exposes the border wall as a fantasy, a xenophobe’s architectural folly.
The odds were impossibly long from the start. It’s worth revisiting just how ridiculous the idea as Trump conceived it truly was. In a February 2016 town hall—which feels like it was at least 50 years ago—Trump told Morning Joe co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski that his wall would cost “maybe $10 or $12 million.” He assured viewers that there were five different ways to make Mexico pay for it. How, exactly? “Believe me is not an answer,” Brzezinski implored him. “Let me tell you—believe me,” he told her. That’s as clear an answer as anyone ever got.
Then we elected Trump to be President of the United States and suddenly those chants of “Build that wall!” rang with an air of possibility. His delusions, however sincerely held, now had the backing of executive authority. If he actually wanted to build a wall, as president, couldn’t he?
No, of course not. Polls showed persistent opposition to the president’s proposal, opposition that has only grown over time. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, estimated that the wall would cost about 6,000 times what the president promised—$67 billion, more than the budget for the entire U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (“That amounts to over $200 for every American,” she wrote in one letter to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.)
A design contest nevertheless proceeded, with some necessary ambiguity built in as to whether the wall would be an actual wall, something more like a fence, or some assemblage of new technologies and personnel that could be draped with a “Mission Accomplished” banner. Because a wall was always, always impossible. Of the hundreds of firms that bid to design and build a wall wall for Trump, few and maybe none had the qualifications to do it.
It wasn’t that the technical know-how was impossible to acquire—any contractor can build a wall—but the capacity to manage the logistics, staging, human resources, and environmental mitigation, to say nothing of enduring the inevitable lawsuits involved with physically walling off nearly 2,000 miles of rugged and remote geography. The likeliest companies to compete, the big boys—Bechtel, Boeing, AECOM, CH2M, and others—shied away from the project. And that was before cities New York City and the entire state of California threatened to divest from any companies that worked on the wall. The Partnership for Working Families is leaning on Berkshire Hathaway to publicly commit not to put up the bonding that is required for federal projects. Even Texas opposes the wall.
This week, cabinet officials in charge of the many programs shredded by the White House budget were forced to frame the damage that these cuts would augur. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson did so by observing that “poverty is a state of mind,” embracing the position that neither budget cuts nor budgets broadly construed have much of an effect on people. U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, meanwhile, said that there is nothing wrong with America’s food assistance program, crossing swords with the administration.
But nobody stood up for the wall—not Trump, not Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, and believe it or not, also not Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. Because the wall is preposterous.
Maybe, finally, by dialing back its budget request, the White House is conceding this reality. Or at least someone involved is acknowledging the fact that Democrats won’t support much in this budget, and the White House needs to give a little if it’s going to get its way. It’s hard to say which idea is sillier: Building a wall and making Mexico pay for it, or believing that there’s a chance this budget passes.