During his run for the presidency in 2016, Donald Trump found a surefire method for changing the mood at his political rallies. Whenever he sensed that he was losing the crowd, he told the editorial board of the New York Times, "I just say, We will build the wall!' and they go nuts."
This week, with impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives dominating the headlines, the border wall may reappear as a distraction for Trump's staunchest supporters. Lawmakers have agreed in principle to adopt a stop-gap spending bill to avert a partial shutdown of the federal government on Thursday, with the hope that negotiators from Congress and the administration can use the 30-day reprieve it grants to finalize spending authorizations for the remainder of the fiscal year.
A possible sticking point? Funding for the president's wall.
Last year, when Democrats refused to provide $5 billion in wall funding in a budget deal, the result was a 35-day shutdown.
So, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared on the political talk show Face the Nation on Sunday, and said that she was optimistic that a deal would be reached to avoid a shutdown, the natural follow-up question was whether that meant that Democrats would be providing wall funding.
Pelosi replied with a definitive "No." She went on to suggest that she doesn't believe that the president is truly committed to the effort.
"The President hasn't built any new wall in a whole term of office," she said. "I think that his comments about the wall are really an applause line at a rally, but they're not anything that he's serious about."
Pelosi's comments pointed to a central issue with regard to the border wall: widespread confusion about its current status.
President Trump asserts that wall construction is moving ahead. In both his Twitter feed and his public remarks, Trump regularly touts the "great progress" being made on constructing the barrier. In September, a Department of Defense spokesperson made a statement to reporters that implied new sections of wall were being built at the rate of a mile per day.
However, the reality is somewhat different.
On Friday, acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan told reporters that 78 miles (125 kilometers) of new border wall had already been built. However, under questioning, he acknowledged it was actually 78 miles of replacement wall for "an existing form of barrier."
However, he added, workers have begun breaking ground in places in the Rio Grande Valley where no barrier currently exists.
It may actually be a number of years before the government is able to begin construction on many sections of the proposed wall, according to analysts, because it does not own the land. Hundreds of private individuals hold title to land along the United States' border with Mexico, and in order to build the wall on their land, the Trump administration would either have to convince them to sell it to the government or use its Eminent Domain authority to take the land without the owners' consent.
Many landowners have expressed unwillingness to sell, either because of opposition to the wall or for other reasons. The Trump administration has indicated that as soon as this week it could begin filing the court documents necessary to take possession of the land from owners who don't want to give it up.
According to reporting by NBC News, the government is considering the use of an expedited process that could avoid lengthy court battles over the land seizures. Success would hinge on convincing the courts that a state of emergency exists that justifies depriving owners the right to contest the seizures in court.
"It's a challenge to go through that process," Morgan told reporters. However, he added, "I still think we're on track to get the land we need for 450 miles" (724 kilometers) of new wall construction.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is exploring a novel way of calling public attention to the wall construction. Jared Kushner, a White House adviser and the president's son-in-law, has reportedly proposed the installation of cameras that would allow the administration to live-stream video from construction sites.
The Army Corps of Engineers and the CBP have both objected to the proposal, which is being driven, according to the Washington Post, directly by the president himself. The idea is that a 24-hour-per-day video stream showing construction in progress would silence critics — like Pelosi — who regularly dismiss the wall as more of a publicity stunt than a serious piece of border control policy.
The web-cam proposal drew immediate fire from Democrats, who derided it as an election-year stunt for the president's political benefit. Corey Booker, the New Jersey senator running for the Democratic presidential nomination, co-sponsored a bill to block the use of federal funds for a wall camera.
"The only thing more senseless and wasteful than an ineffective border wall is installing a camera to livestream its construction," he said in a statement.
Democratic arguments that the wall is ineffective received further support earlier this month, when multiple news reports confirmed that drug smugglers have been able to breach border walls with the help of a portable reciprocating saw — a power tool available in hardware stores for under $100.