WASHINGTON — Frustrated that neither Mexico nor Congress will pay for his border wall, President Donald Trump has directed his Cabinet to scrounge through the executive branch couch cushions to see what they can come up with.
“The president has asked every agency to look and see if they have money that they can use for that purpose,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday.
It’s unclear how much money that could produce, and whether Trump could legally order it transferred between agencies without permission from Congress.
Stan Collender, a longtime former budget staffer on Capitol Hill, said agencies had “very limited” ability to transfer money to each other. “Usually requires at least tacit congressional approval,” he added. “Finding $5 billion will be very hard and have long-term negative implications for Trump with appropriators.”
About a fourth of the federal government will run out of operating money Friday at midnight. Trump has threatened to allow a shutdown of those agencies ― which include the departments of Homeland Security, Justice, State and Interior — if Congress fails to include $5 billion to start a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
But with Congress appearing unlikely to approve anything beyond the existing $1.6 billion for border security improvements — but not a border wall — Trump’s White House has started to signal that it might be able to get the money in other ways.
“We’ll see what happens. It’s too early to say,” Trump said during a Tuesday photo opportunity when he was asked about a possible shutdown. “We need border security.”
He promised many hundreds of times during his campaign that American taxpayers would not have to pay anything for his 30-foot-tall, concrete “great wall” because he would force Mexico to pay for it. But nearly two years into his presidency, he has yet to broach the subject even a single time with that country’s leaders.
Asked about that promise during a rare White House press briefing Tuesday, Sanders first claimed — falsely — that money transferred from other agencies did not constitute American taxpayer money. Then she claimed — also falsely ― that the North American Free Trade Agreement that Trump has rebranded as the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement will effectively make Mexico pay for the wall.
“We’re not asking Americans taxpayers for that. We are looking at existing funding through other agencies right now that we can draw on to do that immediately,” Sanders said. She added, referring to increased tax revenue from the modified trade deal, “We could pay for the wall four times over. … We’re talking about additional revenue that wouldn’t have existed without the president getting a new deal.”
But trade economists say that only one provision of the revised deal would directly increase collections by the U.S. Treasury: a 2.5 percent tariff that would be imposed on cars made in Mexico that did not have at least 75 percent content made in North America. The current threshold is 62.5 percent.
That provision would bring in only about $600 million a year — nowhere near enough to pay for a $25 billion wall, even after two decades. More important, that tariff would be paid by those who purchase cars in the United States, not the government of Mexico.
“Ultimately, who’s affected by the tariffs is the American consumer, who will pay more for cars,” said Monica de Bolle of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.