McALLEN, Texas — Taking the shutdown fight to the Mexican border, President Donald Trump edged closer Thursday to declaring a national emergency in an extraordinary end run around Congress to fund his long-promised border wall. Pressure was mounting to find an escape hatch from the three-week impasse that has closed parts of the government, cutting scattered services and leaving hundreds of thousands of workers without pay.
Trump, visiting McAllen, Texas, and the Rio Grande to highlight what he says is a crisis of drugs and crime, said that “if for any reason we don’t get this going” — an agreement with House Democrats who have refused to approve the $5.7 billion he demands for the wall — “I will declare a national emergency.”
Some 800,000 workers, more than half of them still on the job, were to miss their first paychecks Friday under the stoppage, and Washington was close to setting a record for the longest government shutdown in the nation’s history. Those markers — along with growing effects to national parks, food inspections and the economy overall — left some Republicans on Capitol Hill increasingly uncomfortable with Trump’s demands.
Asked about the plight of those going without pay, the president shifted the focus, saying he felt badly “for people that have family members that have been killed” by criminals who came over the border.
Trump was consulting with White House attorneys and allies about using presidential emergency powers to take unilateral action to construct the wall over the objections of Congress. He said his lawyers told him the action would withstand legal scrutiny “100 percent.” Such a move to bypass Congress’ constitutional control of the nation’s purse strings would spark certain legal challenges and bipartisan cries of executive overreach.
A congressional official said the White House has directed the Army Corps of Engineers to look for billions of dollars earmarked last year for disaster response for Puerto Rico and other areas that could be diverted to a border wall as part of the emergency declaration. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly.
“We’re either going to have a win, make a compromise — because I think a compromise is a win for everybody — or I will declare a national emergency,” Trump said before departing the White House. He wore his campaign-slogan “Make America Great Again” cap throughout his trip.
It was not clear what a compromise might entail. Trump says he won’t reopen the government without money for the wall. Democrats say they favor measures to bolster border security but oppose the wall Trump envisions.
Vice President Mike Pence shuttled through meetings on Capitol Hill, but there were no signs of a breakthrough. Pence panned, for now, a last-ditch effort led by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to strike a bipartisan immigration compromise linking wall funding to deportation protections for some immigrants, including young people here illegally known as Dreamers. But Pence, in a briefing with reporters, said the president prefers to wait for the courts to decide that issue.
Pence said the president has “made no decision” about declaring an emergency, but added, “The president’s going to get this done one way or the other.”
Visiting a Border Patrol station in McAllen, Trump viewed tables piled with weapons and narcotics. Like nearly all drugs trafficked across the border, they were intercepted by agents at official ports of entry, he was told, and not in the remote areas where he wants to extend tall barriers.
Still, he declared: “A wall works. … Nothing like a wall.” He argued that the U.S. can’t solve the problem without one.
Several hundred protesters near the airport in McAllen chanted and waved signs opposing a wall. Across the street, a smaller group chanted back: “Build that wall!”
In an ominous sign for those seeking a swift end to the showdown, Trump announced he was canceling his trip to Davos, Switzerland, scheduled for later this month, citing Democrats’ “intransigence” on border security. He was to leave Jan. 21 to attend the World Economic Forum.
White House officials on Wednesday asked federal agencies to send them a list of stalled services they would like to resume to minimize the public impact of the federal shutdown, three people familiar with the directive said. It is unusual for the White House to allow agencies to make so many changes to their contingency plans at this stage in a shutdown. White House officials said they are trying to provide maximum flexibility to blunt the impact on American families and businesses.
The National Park Service said it would resume trash collection, urgent roadwork and sanitation services at its Washington, D.C., parks Friday.
The partial shutdown would set a record early Saturday, stretching beyond the 21-day closure that ended Jan. 6, 1996, during President Bill Clinton’s administration.
— The Washington Post contributed to this report.