Minnesota’s most conservative Democratic congressman sparked a firestorm on Tuesday with just a few words during a talk radio appearance: “Give Trump the money.”
That was the judgment of Rep. Collin Peterson, of the 7th Congressional District, on what Democrats should do to resolve the current impasse in Washington over President Donald Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion for a border wall with Mexico — which sparked the ongoing government shutdown, now by far the longest closure in U.S. history.
“I’d give him the whole thing,” Peterson told KFGO’s Joel Heitkamp, “and put strings on it so you make sure he puts the wall where it needs to be. Why are we fighting over this? We’re going to build that wall anyway, at some time.”
Thirty-two days into the shutdown, Peterson had seemingly done what no other Democrat in Congress had yet dared to do: accede to Trump’s wall demand, and go against Democratic leaders’ insistence that the wall, an “immorality,” would receive not a dime of taxpayer money.
The congressman’s quotes spread fast, enraging Democrats who howled over what they saw as Peterson’s capitulation to Trump’s demands, and delighting Republicans, who held up his remarks as evidence that Democrats were crumbling and that their anti-wall stance was a political loser. The media quickly picked it up, with outlets from the Washington Post to Roll Call — which asked readers to “meet the Democrat who wants to give Trump money for the wall” — running with the news.
The problem with those headlines and all the outrage, according to Peterson, is that he can’t imagine a realistic scenario in which he’d want to give Trump money for the wall. In an interview with MinnPost on Wednesday, Peterson accused the press of misinterpreting his remarks and lambasted both Trump and Democrats for backing into their corners of the wall fight and acting uninterested in real compromise.
“Anybody that sticks their head up gets it shot off,” Peterson told MinnPost. “The furor caused yesterday — people didn’t look at what I said, and this is the problem. The press has allowed it to become polarized.”
Peterson clarified what he meant about giving Trump the money: “What I said was, I would support the wall if there were strings attached.” He mentioned a few conditions that would need to be present for him to support any wall: prohibiting the government from using eminent domain to secure private land on which to build the wall, ensuring that environmental rules are followed in its construction, and requiring the Border Patrol and border state governors to sign off on plans before any construction occurs.
The congressman also mentioned that federal officials who process migrants at ports of entry need more resources. “I’m not against the wall if it’s done appropriately and done in relation to everything else we need to do,” he said. “There are places where the wall has not been built, where it could be built, and probably should be built. But we have to have a process to make sure it gets done correctly.”
To that end, Peterson said he’d only support the wall if it makes sense — and he made clear he believes it’s unlikely that it ever would. “You think if we put the strings on, the wall would ever get built?” he asked, with a laugh. “Let’s talk about the reality there.”
Backed into corners
Peterson, who represents a district that voted for Trump by 32 points in 2016, bristled at the suggestion he was trying to ally himself with Trump. Since making his initial comments on Tuesday, Peterson says he has not heard from the White House, and said he has “not gotten the indication” that the president is serious about listening to Democrats like him.
He mentioned the meeting with Trump that some centrist members of the bipartisan “Problem Solvers Caucus,” including freshman Rep. Dean Phillips of the 3rd District, attended last week. That the president met with a group of freshman and sophomore rank-and-file members suggested to Peterson, a 15-term congressman who now chairs the House Agriculture Committee, that Trump isn’t serious about a substantive negotiation with Democrats. (Peterson said he does not know if he would talk with Trump if invited, and said he’d want to put “conditions on it” before he did.)
Though Peterson is generally considered loyal to Democratic leaders like Speaker Nancy Pelosi, he has a reputation for voting often with Republicans and occasionally being a thorn in his party’s side. He expressed frustration with his camp’s tack in the shutdown: “The Democrats, because of the positions they’ve taken, have been neutralized completely — no wall, it’s immoral,” he said.
“There are not enough people in either party to make the leadership worried about what they’re doing,” he said. “They’re in charge. They’re backed into their corners, and I don’t know how you get them out.”
Some observers read into Peterson’s willingness to entertain the wall and sensed some anxiety about his standing back home. Election after election, he won by large margins even as CD7, which covers much of western Minnesota, turned redder. But in 2016 and 2018, he won by no more than five points over David Hughes, a political novice who never got much funding and backing from D.C. Republicans. In 2020, Peterson could be higher on the GOP’s House target list than he has been in years.
Peterson says he just wants to find a way out of the shutdown that is causing a lot of hurt in his district, a major farm region where the U.S. Department of Agriculture, now shuttered, plays a role in everyday life.
Late Tuesday, Peterson circulated a letter with Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican, calling on Trump and congressional leaders to reopen the government and then pass legislation on the border, which could include money for “expanded physical barriers where appropriate.”
Peterson said that the duo is struggling to get other lawmakers to sign on. “In the old days, the Blue Dogs would have been all over this,” he said, referring to the two-decade old coalition of conservative Democrats, of which Peterson is a member.
“I’m probably the only one left that has the guts to say what I said. It’s ridiculous,” Peterson said. “People say, [the wall] is a waste of money. Maybe it is… We’ve wasted money on stupider things than this. Maybe it isn’t going to do much good, it’s probably not going to do much harm. Why are we getting wrapped all around the axle on this?”