Former President Donald Trump’s suggestion that he would act like a “dictator” to enforce a crackdown on migrants has thrown yet another wrench into the delicate, bipartisan Senate negotiations over border enforcement that have appeared to be on the verge of collapse this week.
The former president made his comments during a Fox News Town Hall on Tuesday, after host Sean Hannity asked whether he would ever abuse his authority if elected to a second term. “This guy, he says, ‘You’re not going to be a dictator, are you?’” Mr. Trump said, referring to Hannity. “‘No, no, no — other than Day 1. We’re closing the border. And we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I’m not a dictator.”
Lawmakers are attempting to negotiate a package pairing new border restrictions with aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. But Trump’s remarks are heightening wariness among Senate Democrats about endorsing broad new powers he could wield as president.
“You have to view any changes we’re making through the prism of both Republican and Democratic administrations,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told Semafor. “So believe me, lots of Democrats are going to vote against any changes we make to the border because they worry about what a future President Trump might do with the changes we make.”
Senate Republicans have emphasized they won’t support a new round of aid to Ukraine unless major changes to border enforcement policy are attached. GOP senators are seeking to overhaul the asylum system in particular, including by handing the president new authority to essentially shut it down at will by halting the processing of claims, Semafor recently reported.
Negotiations are on ice for now with the bipartisan Senate group unable to devise a solution to deal with a historic increase in border crossings. Meanwhile, Democrats involved in the talks are warning that they’re taking Trump both seriously, and literally.
“I would say that people should not disregard what Donald Trump is saying as a joke,” Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., a Democratic negotiator, told Semafor. “He’s behaved like a dictator in his first term, and I think that is how he would behave in a second term.”
Senate Democrats genuinely dread Trump’s plans for the border, and do not want to hand him powers that could be used to mothball the asylum system. In an interview with me, the usually soft-spoken Bennet used language like “draconian” and “brutal” to describe what he thought Trump’s second term immigration agenda would look like.
Yet that might be the price plenty of Democrats reluctantly accept if it means delivering what’s likely the last round of aid to Ukraine before the 2024 election. Biden has signaled to Democrats they should be ready for sacrifices in these negotiation, however worried they might be about Trump’s rhetoric. “I am willing to make significant compromises on the border. We need to fix the broken border system,” the president said on Wednesday.
Room for Disagreement
Republican senators largely downplayed Trump’s comments. “He said he would do two things: He would close the border and drill.” Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., told reporters. “Everybody could say that’s abusing power, I think that’s a righteous use of power and President Biden’s failed on it.”
“I think he’s sort of kidding,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Semafor. “But we need somebody to completely gain control of the border on day one and he’s the guy to do it.”