Trump, Congress, the Border, and Foreign Aid (and Biden Too): Add Contents and Stir – Democracy Paradox

The Border
U.S – Mexico Border in San Diego. Photo by Amyyfory via Wikimedia Commons

By David Bernell and Ambassador Thomas Graham, Jr. (Retired)

There are many things we have learned since Donald Trump declared in 2015 that he was running for president. One of them is that no election in which Donald Trump is involved is normal. The election in 2024 is the fifth (including midterm elections) in which the man will be unequivocally in the middle of things. So at this point, the one thing we should not be surprised by is…more surprises.

The situation that has emerged recently is that Congress has been working on a funding bill that would allocate over $100 billion for several priorities. This includes aid to Ukraine to help it repel Russia’s invasion and maintain its very existence as an independent country. The bill would also provide aid to Israel and to Taiwan, as both of these countries face significant threats to their own security. These countries are all friends of the United States, their security interests are aligned (or at least have been aligned) with the interests of the United States – for many decades in the case of Israel and Taiwan, and there has been majority support in both the House and the Senate to approve this aid package, even though many Republican members of Congress and the party as a whole have been moving away from the longstanding Republican policy of providing support for American friends abroad.

However, as a condition of this support for foreign aid, Republican lawmakers also said that if the United States is going to help other countries defend their borders, it would also be necessary for the United States to do more to secure its own borders. This meant increased funding and stronger measures to stop (or at least slow) the surge of people crossing into the United States from Mexico.

The southern border of the United States most definitely presents a difficult problem that has to be addressed. Millions of people from countries all over the world have come to the United States, as they flee poverty, persecution, and political violence in their own countries. In 2023 alone, 2.5 million people from all parts of the globe – but mostly from Latin America and the Caribbean – entered the United States at the southern border. Because of U.S. immigration laws and procedures, many of these people are able to remain in the country while their applications to stay legally are considered. There is currently a backlog of over three million cases.

The crisis at the border must be addressed, but it is not necessary to tie immigration policy to foreign aid. This has been the position of President Biden and Congressional Democrats. Nonetheless, after some resistance, they agreed to put all these priorities in a single bill, accepting Republican demands on border security in order to get the foreign aid they wanted, especially for Ukraine. (The Democrats agreed to do more on border security than they ever had previously. It is unlikely that the GOP could pass a border security bill this strong even with Trump in the White House, because the Democrats would refuse to pass it if they controlled either house of Congress, or they would filibuster it in the Senate if that was their only option.)

Just when it looked like an agreement could be found and a bill could be passed, Donald Trump stepped in. He made it clear to his fellow Republicans in Congress, in particular Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, that he didn’t want the bill to pass. Doing so would “give Biden a win,” and that was not in the interest of Trump or the Republican party. They would be much better off with the issue going into the 2024 elections than they would be with any kind of solution or action to address the problem. The thinking is that they can blame the problems at the border on Biden and argue that Trump could do much better. Therefore, at Trump’s behest, Speaker Johnson let it be known he would kill the bill, saying that anything the Senate approves would be “dead on arrival” in the House. Now, the new Republican solution for the border is to get Trump elected President. (This is not a surefire solution, as illegal entry into the United States was not stopped by Trump when he was in office.)

This could possibly be a useful strategy for Trump and the Republicans to help their electoral fortunes, but there are a few problems with it. The first is that the GOP has been vociferously calling for immediate action with respect to the border. They have said that the massive flow of people coming into the U.S  represents an existential crisis to the country, and that action cannot be delayed. Now they are saying that it is fine to wait a year to do anything new. They are refusing to pass the very bill they wanted, fought for, and negotiated. They won’t take yes for an answer. To that end, they have forfeited any credibility they may have had in calling for immediate steps to save the country (to the extent that they had some credibility on this issue to begin with).

A second problem is that not every Republican in Congress is eager to do exactly as Donald Trump wants. While the vast majority of Republicans in the House and Senate seem willing to stop the bill to serve Donald Trump’s interests, Senator James Langford, who has been leading bipartisan negotiations on the border, has been very critical of his fellow Republicans who are now opposing the bill, saying “Republicans, four months ago, would not give funding for Ukraine, for Israel and for our southern border because we demanded changes in policy…And now, it’s interesting, a few months later, when we’re finally getting to the end, they’re like, ‘Oh, just kidding, I actually don’t want a change in law because it’s a presidential election year.’”

The third problem, and the biggest problem of all in this situation, is that vital aid is being blocked, particularly aid to Ukraine. The stakes of the war in Ukraine are enormous. A sovereign country – a democracy no less – has been invaded by an aggressive, dictatorial power. If the United States stands by and refuses to provide additional help, allowing Russia to win this war, the United States will do irreparable harm to itself and its allies, while strengthening Russia and emboldening others, letting them know that it will be easy to use force, invade other countries, and pay no price. As we have argued previously, “The Ukrainians are doing NATO’s job, and they are doing it at little expense to the alliance, weakening Russia and keeping it at bay as it seeks to harm the West, undermine democratic elections in the United States and beyond, and bring Putin’s sympathizers to power on both sides of the Atlantic.” As the Republicans continue to block aid to Ukraine, they are in effect providing “aid and comfort” to Russia.

All of this reflects the fact that this is most certainly an unusual election. In a typical campaign for an incumbent such as Biden, the election would largely be a referendum on the sitting president. In 2024 we are likely to see something different. It is unprecedented to have a former president trying to whip Congress into doing his own bidding to help him run for election, and being pretty successful at doing so (at least thus far). It is unprecedented for a former president to be charged with multiple crimes, standing trial in multiple jurisdictions, subject to both prison and massive financial penalties. And it is unprecedented to have a candidate for president who pours forth such venom against those he opposes, calling them “deranged,” “vermin,” “lunatic,” “wack job,” “fraud,” “political hack,” “Birdbrain,” and of course, “Crooked Joe,” while calling for “retribution” against them.

Because of Trump’s outsize presence in American politics – his attraction to so many voters, his sway over Republican members of Congress, his ability to command attention (and this article is just another example proving the point), his trials, as well as his outrageous, vitriolic, and nonsensical outbursts – this election will most certainly become a referendum on Donald Trump, not Joe Biden.

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