WASHINGTON — It was the signature promise of his campaign: Donald Trump vowed to build an impenetrable concrete wall along the southern border. And Mexico was going to pay for it.
Now as he nears inauguration, that wall is sounding increasingly like it could end up a fence. And his team and Congressional Republicans are hatching a plan in which taxpayers — at least initially — would foot the bill.
Trump and his aides insisted Jan. 6 the president-elect wasn't breaking with his campaign vow.
"Nothing has changed from our perspective," said top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway in an interview with CBS. She said Congress was "taking it on themselves to explore different options to pay for the wall," and voiced no objections.
Trump was more direct: "The dishonest media does not report that any money spent on building the Great Wall (for sake of speed), will be paid back by Mexico later!" he tweeted.
Under the plan being discussed, the new construction would be pushed through without any new border legislation, relying on a 2006 law that authorized more fencing along the southern border. Congress would pay for it in its annual spending bills.
Trump told the New York Times in an interview recently that the spending plan would help "speed up the process," and insisted that even if taxpayers pay upfront, "We're going to get reimbursed."
The money, he told the paper, would likely be recouped through a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he had criticized often in the past.
Trump's vow to build an impenetrable concrete wall along the southern border was the signature issue of his campaign. Trump often described a wall made of hardened concrete, rebar and steel that would stand as tall as his rally venues' ceilings. "Build the wall!" supporters would chant at his rallies.
"Who's going to pay for it?" Trump would ask them. "Mexico!"
Mexican officials repeatedly said the plan was a no-go. But Trump said he knew better.
"Mexico will pay for the wall, 100 per cent," he insisted during a major immigration speech. "They don't know it yet, but they're going to pay for the wall."
Trump never settled on a mechanism for how that would come about. He floated various options, including compelling the country to cover the cost with higher visa and border crossing fees and threatening to target billions of dollars in remittances sent home by immigrants living in the U.S.
The approach under discussion could stave off a legislative fight the president-elect might lose if he tried to get Congress to pass a measure authorizing the kind of border wall he promised during the campaign.
"We have a funding vehicle coming up in April and that could be a way to get started, and I don't see anything particularly partisan or controversial about funding an existing law," said GOP Rep. Luke Messer of Indiana. "I think it will be difficult to stand against funding existing law."
"Some people have sort of talked about the question of whether it's backtracking if Mexico somehow doesn't fill out a giant cheque and mail it to the U.S. Treasury," Messer added. "There are multiple ways to fund this where, in effect, Mexico is paying for it."
Some lawmakers and others argued Congress has wide latitude to fund additional construction along the 2,000-mile border even without new authorizing legislation. The Secure Fence Act of 2006 allowed 700 miles, most of which has already been built, but some areas are in much better shape than others and long stretches are made up of fencing that stops vehicles but not pedestrians.
But that legislation also describes layers of "reinforced fencing" — not the kind of wall Trump had described.
Trump aides did not respond to questions about whether building a fence instead of a wall would represent a broken campaign promise.
During a post-election interview on 60 Minutes, Trump said he would be open to a fence, at least along some stretches.
"For certain areas I would, but certain areas, a wall is more appropriate," he said then. "I'm very good at this, it's called construction."
Current government funding expires in April, setting the stage for a skirmish then over spending on the border, and a potential showdown if the administration does try to include major new funding for a wall. If Senate Democrats try to block the move, it could threaten a government shutdown.
Leon Fresco, a former top aide to now-Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, said that while Congress could have wide latitude in funding border construction through the appropriations process, GOP attempts to do so could run into trouble.
"They're trying to use the April funding deadline to jam the funding of the border," Fresco said, arguing that it amounts to a GOP gambit to get the 60 votes they need in the Senate by forcing a government shutdown showdown.
If Mexico were really going to pay for the wall, he added, a funding fight on Capitol Hill would be unnecessary.
"You can't shut down the government because you lied in your campaign promise," Fresco said. "There is no way to get Mexico to pay for the wall."
Former Mexican President Vicente Fox also weighed in on Twitter, insisting his country would never pay for what he dubbed a "racist monument."
"Be clear with U.S. taxpayers," he wrote. "They will pay for it."