Donald Trump transition team fires up spin machine on construction of Mexico border wall


It was a staple of Donald Trump's campaign for president, a chant, a call and response as familiar as any church service. 

"We're going to build the wall. And who's going to pay for it?"

Trump fans eagerly shouted back: "MEXICO!"

That turned out not to immediately be the case — and now Trump's spin machine is firing on all cylinders to save face.

According to political experts, even a bobble on such a bedrock campaign promise as forcing Mexico to pony up for the wall may well not hurt the Teflon Don.

"Usually, such a strong and repeated campaign promise as the one Trump made would lead to a significant backlash if it was not acted upon, but as with so many things regarding Donald Trump, I'm not so sure that the convention will hold," Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, said in an interview.

Borick said that, even in the scant few days before he assumes the presidency, Trump continues to have the same "magical ability politically" to avoid sustaining lasting damage from "things that he's said that would seem almost fatal from a candidate's perspective."

Trump's defensive Friday morning tweet about who would pay for the wall made him the subject of much mockery from detractors.

Assuming the damage control mode that's made her invaluable to the president-elect, Kellyanne Conway, the Trump campaign manager who will continue to serve as a top adviser, elaborated on  Fox & Friends on Friday: 

This is an important tweet because obviously a centerpiece of Donald Trump's successful campaign was 'I'm going to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it,' that hasn't changed but Congress is examining ways ... to have the wall paid for through their auspices and Mr. Trump is making a point, the president-elect is making a point, that he will have Mexico pay it back.

And on the transition team's daily call with reporters, incoming Press Secretary Sean Spicer also tried to get out ahead of questions about Trump's finessing of the wall. 

Spicer opened by saying there was nothing newsy about the development, which CNN reported Thursday night and described as a major breach of Trump's campaign stump rhetoric.

"I think this is something that has been noted," Spicer said, when asked to elaborate on the price and timeline Friday. "There's an ongoing discussion with Congress about how to fund it and then obviously the logistics to make it work. I think those are both things that are going to take a little bit of time in terms of figuring out both the cost and, and, and overall cost."

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"I think there's probably parts of it that can start right away," Spicer continued. "So this is something that we'll continue to work with Congress on all aspects of that [and] on the logistics to make it happen and the appropriations process."

As Bloomberg reported,

Republican lawmakers and transition team members are considering using a law signed by former President George W. Bush that authorized construction of more than 700 miles of 'physical barrier' on the southern U.S. border, said House Republican Policy Committee Chairman Luke Messer, an Indiana Republican. The 2006 law was never fully implemented and doesn't expire.

Friday's remarks from Trump and his top aides are just the latest curveballs in the discussion of a U.S.-Mexico border wall, which the president-elect began talking up from the very start of his campaign in June 2015.

As a candidate, Trump met with the president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto. 

That he was able to meet with a foreign dignitary without a major stumble ostensibly added a whiff of legitimacy to his campaign. It also allowed the Mexican president to declare publicly that his nation had no intention of paying for any wall.

Amid the latest wall hubbub, former Mexican President and perennial Trump basher Vicente Fox weighed in with his usual sledgehammer subtlety:

Trump notably toned down his tough talk about a border barrier immediately after his November upset victory over Hillary Clinton: In his signature chameleon fashion, he suggested in an interview with 60 Minutes that the much-vaunted "great" wall might be more of "a fence" in places.

David Redlawsk, chair of the department of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware, said in an interview Friday that such machinations are par for the course when it comes to the magnate-turned-politician.

"Whatever policy positions Trump laid out during the campaign may or may not bear a resemblance to what happens during his presidency," Redlawsk said. 

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"[During his campaign], he pushed policy positions that he thought would get him the support he wanted, but not with any serious consideration of what it meant or how it worked, so I'm not surprised at any walkback," Redlawsk added.

As to whether continuing to employ the flip-flopping into the presidency will hurt Trump in the eyes of the public, Redlawsk said, "I think right now he has the freedom to do virtually anything."

"His supporters are not going to drop away before he's even president. Down the road, it could be a different story."

Republican loyalist Joseph Borelli, a New York City councilman who co-chaired Trump's campaign in the Empire State, brushed off the latest questions as mere noise. He pointed to an October 2016 stump speech Trump made in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, as proof that Trump wasn't pulling a bait-and-switch on the public.

"Despite the media hyperbole, it's not sudden, as the president-elect had said over the course of the campaign that Mexico may indirectly pay for it after the fact," Borelli said in an interview..

It's that type of dedication to Trump that leaves observers like Borick, the Muhlenberg professor, scratching their heads over the incoming commander in chief.

"I wonder what would start to make people distance themselves," Borick said. "He's made more promises in terms of how he would change things in a quick period of time than any presidential candidate I can remember."

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Still, he noted, the technique has the potential to do harm to the GOP. "We've seen historically [that] if a president fails to have a good first two years, his party pays a price in the midterms. That's been a pretty solid rule in American electoral politics," Borick said, pointing to Congressional upheavals under President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton.

If Trump as president alienates base voters, the pollster postulated, he may not personally take the hit — but his agenda might, if his GOP somehow experiences slippage in the 2018 midterms: "Maybe he gets a little bit of a pass, but I don't know if that transfers over to his party at the same time."