Ann Coulter wants a wall. But does Trump actually need to deliver?

Why We Wrote This

As President Trump prepares to address the nation Tuesday, he’s under withering attack from once-friendly conservative quarters. Some strategists say the president shouldn’t underestimate his own power to sell some sort of compromise. 

Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP
Conservative pundit Ann Coulter participates in a panel at Politicon at the Los Angeles Convention Center Oct. 20, 2018. After President Trump ended the 35-day government shutdown without money for his promised border wall, Ms. Coulter called Trump the "biggest wimp" ever to occupy the Oval Office.

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Tuesday’s State of the Union address comes at a crucial time – fresh off the record-long government shutdown, and midway through the three-week window President Trump and Congress have set to resolve their impasse over funding and the president’s demand for $5.7 billion for a border wall.

It also comes at an unusual moment of tension between Mr. Trump and some of his supporters in right-wing media, many of whom were irate that he “caved,” in ending the shutdown. On Friday, Ann Coulter, the usually pro-Trump provocateur, called Trump “lazy and incompetent” and a “lunatic” who could face a primary challenge from the right. That same day, Trump said there’s a “good chance” he’ll bypass Congress and declare a national emergency to fund the wall.

Yet some Republican strategists suggest Trump is wrong to be cowed by pundits like Ms. Coulter. To them, it’s as if Trump still doesn’t fully appreciate how much power he holds over the GOP base. “President Trump has enormous latitude to set the agenda for rank-and-file Republicans,” says Scott Jennings, a political adviser in the second Bush White House. “I don’t think they will abandon him.”

On Tuesday night, when President Trump gives his State of the Union address, issue 1 will be immigration.

The nationally televised speech comes at a crucial time, fresh off the record-long shutdown and midway through the three-week window Mr. Trump and Congress have carved out to resolve the impasse over government funding and the president’s demand for $5.7 billion in wall money.

It also comes at an unusual moment of tension between Trump and some of his strongest supporters in right-wing media – many of whom were irate that he “caved” in ending the government shutdown without getting any money for the southern-border wall.

Ann Coulter, the usually pro-Trump provocateur, has been working the talk-show and podcast circuit – conservative and liberal – trying to goad Trump into using executive power to build the wall. Ms. Coulter, along with other immigration hawks such as Fox Business host Lou Dobbs, were driving forces behind Trump’s hard-line immigration stance in the first place, and had pushed him toward the shutdown. 

Speaking on the Yahoo podcast Skullduggery on Friday, Coulter called Trump “lazy and incompetent” and a “lunatic” who could face a primary challenge from the right if he doesn’t build the wall.  

That same day, Trump said there’s a “good chance” he’ll bypass Congress and declare a national emergency to fund the wall.  

Yet some Republican strategists suggest Trump is wrong to be cowed. While these right-wing firebrands may have played a key role in promoting the Trump brand during the 2016 campaign, most need Trump more than he needs them. It’s as if Trump still doesn’t fully appreciate how much power he holds over the GOP base: He’s the president, and conservative pundits are not.  

“President Trump has enormous latitude to set the agenda for rank-and-file Republicans,” says Scott Jennings, a political adviser in the second Bush White House.

If Trump proposes a compromise for immigration and border security – and stresses that that’s what’s achievable in divided government – Republicans will follow, says Mr. Jennings, who calls himself a Trump supporter.

What’s achievable in divided government, by definition, involves a willingness to allow both sides to claim a win. Two years into the Trump presidency, most of his supporters have proved durably loyal to him, and will likely be even more so once he has a 2020 Democratic opponent.

“I don’t think they will abandon him,” Jennings says. “He’s their leader.”

Indeed, when asked about the wall at rallies and in focus groups, Trump supporters often say they don’t take his promise literally, but rather see “build the wall” as more broadly symbolic of a tougher approach toward immigration.

Trump could potentially even be a “Nixon in China” when it comes to immigration, says GOP pollster Whit Ayres. President Richard Nixon was able to visit China in 1972 because of his strong anti-communist stance.

Immigration has dogged American presidents for decades, but “President Trump could actually get something accomplished,” Mr. Ayres says. “He can take risks other presidents couldn’t, and survive politically with his base.”

The question is whether Trump understands that, and is willing to use that power.

In the short term, any immigration compromise could, of course, create bigger cracks in Trump’s right-wing media “firewall.”

But there’s another way to look at it. High-profile pundits like Coulter are getting rich (or rather, richer) off Trump. Coulter has already published two best-sellers in the Trump era: “In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome!” in 2016; and “Resistance is Futile! How the Trump-Hating Left Lost Its Collective Mind,” in 2018.

Controversy attracts eyeballs and listeners, and drives book sales and speaking engagements. In Coulter’s recent interview with conservative talk radio host Howie Carr about her blow-up with Trump, both host and guest reference her books early and often.

“She is an industry,” says GOP strategist and Trump critic Rick Tyler.

That makes Coulter a kind of female version of Trump. Be outrageous, attract attention, drive a narrative: Coulter loves Trump, Coulter bucks Trump, Coulter calls Trump a wimp. The next installment will almost surely be “Coulter and Trump make up.”

“Just keep your promise, and I’m right back in his camp,” she told Bill Maher on Jan. 25 on his HBO show.

The difference, of course, is that Coulter isn’t president of the United States. Neither is talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, who encouraged Trump to “do the right thing” back in December, and allow the government to shut down if Congress didn’t give him wall money.

“Limbaugh would be the first to tell you that he doesn’t move people to the polls,” says Mr. Tyler. “That’s not his job. He doesn’t sit behind the microphone every day and try to move Republicans to vote conservative. He goes out and entertains people.”

For Trump, having allowed the government to partially shut down for 35 days after he rejected a congressional compromise to keep it open, the stakes have only gotten higher.

If Trump goes the national emergency route to build the wall, bypassing Congress’s “power of the purse,” that will ignite a new controversy. The maneuver would likely wind up in court, and split Republicans.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is eager to avoid both another shutdown and a national emergency. Many Republicans argue that true conservatism means not pushing the boundaries of presidential power, which risks setting a precedent for the next Democratic president.

Senator McConnell reportedly cautioned Trump last week against an emergency declaration. But key Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina has been pressuring in the opposite direction.

“If White House and Congress fail to reach a deal then President @realDonaldTrump must act through emergency powers to build wall/barrier,” Senator Graham tweeted last week.

Going forward, some suggest Trump could look to Republican President Ronald Reagan and the 1983 Social Security reform as a model. Form a bipartisan commission (after going it alone fails), then take its compromise plan and sit down with the Democratic House speaker (back then, Tip O’Neill) to finish the deal.

“Both could claim victory,” says Tyler. “With successful presidents, that’s the way it’s always been done.”

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