If the president said in private he would be okay with a shutdown, but in public decried one, what did he actually want?That is a mystery to even his allies in Congress. This week, Trump cast doubt on whether he would sign a short-term spending bill to keep the government’s lights on for another month, hours after his spokeswoman said he would. Hours before a precarious vote in the House of Representatives to avoid such a scenario, Trump pulled the rug out from under GOP leaders by seeming to take away their only leverage to get Democrats on board: funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
And it got worse from there. “He ended the Obama-era dreamer protections in September, tossing it to Congress to fix. Then he switched his position several times on whether he wanted Congress to find a permanent solution and/or what he wanted in exchange for it.” When senators returned with a deal, Trump blew it up and created a furor with his reported “shithole” remark.
On Friday, Minority Leader Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) was asked to come to the White House and spent 90 minutes with the president. He and Trump seemed to come to agreement on a general outline: “Schumer agreed to increase defense … spending to the level in the National Defense Authorization Act numbers, above what the White House had requested,” ABC News reported. “Schumer also agreed to consider the full amount the White House had requested for border security — above the amount included in the DACA proposal worked out by Senators Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.” Then, Schumer suggested a short-term extension to keep the government open, to which Trump seemed amenable.
Then Friday afternoon, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly “calls Schumer and complains that the outline that Schumer and Trump had discussed was too liberal. Full funding of the President’s border security request would not be enough, on its own, to strike a deal giving legal status to the dreamers.” Is this what Trump wants or what Kelly does? It’s impossible to know or even to understand what it means for Trump to want something (for the moment? Unless convinced otherwise?).
On the floor of the Senate on Saturday, Schumer sounded exasperated. He first reviewed the sequence of events. “The bottom line is simple: President Trump just can’t take yes for an answer. He’s rejected not one but two viable bipartisan deals, including one in which I put his most prominent campaign pledge on the table,” he said. “What’s even more frustrating than President Trump’s intransigence is the way he seems amenable to these compromises before completely switching positions and backing off. Negotiating with President Trump is like negotiating with Jell-O.”
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) seems to agree, suggesting at one point that senior policy adviser Stephen Miller was yanking the president around last week. “The Stephen Miller approach to immigration has no viability. Tuesday, the president was in a good place. He was the president of all of us,” Graham told MSNBC on Friday. “He spoke compassionately about immigration, tough on security, wanted bipartisanship. Two days later, there was a major change.” He continued, “I think the change comes about from people like Mr. Miller. Mr. Miller is well known in the Senate for having views that are outside the mainstream.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has also been frustrated at times. On Wednesday, he grumbled, “I’m looking for something that President Trump supports, and he has not yet indicated what measure he is willing to sign. As soon as we figure out what he is for, then I would be convinced that we were not just spinning our wheels.” We really have no idea what that might be, even after the government has shuttered.
The White House declared on Saturday that Trump would not talk about immigration before the shutdown — as far as one could get from his position that he’d sign any deal on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — but McConnell took a different approach. He announced Saturday, “Let’s resume the bipartisan discussion on funding, our troops, DACA, on government spending and all of the other priorities that all of us can work together to resolve.” But wait — didn’t the White House say Trump wouldn’t talk about DACA now?
This is what comes from electing and covering for a president who has little grasp of the details and seems not to comprehend when his statements contradict his earlier statements. He’s either so confused or so forgetful that as soon as one set of the parties leave the room, he can be spun around by whomever he sees next. This is not flexibility or negotiating prowess; it is a recipe for chaos and a shutdown.
Rather than blame Democrats, who they know have been bamboozled just as they have been many times, McConnell and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) might consider assuming the roles of leaders of a co-equal branch of government. They might embrace their position as leaders not merely of their party but of their legislative bodies. There is a large majority for a deal that includes border security, a DACA fix, extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program and increased defense spending. Put it on the floor and let it pass — by a wide margin. Send it to the president, who said he’d sign whatever was agreed to. In other words, ignore the president and his novice staff who are incapable of closing a deal. Instead, hand them one passed by both parties. Then Trump can go to Mar-a-Lago or Davos or wherever and claim he made the deal, though he’d be unable to explain what is in it.
Republicans thought they could support Trump and get him to sign whatever they sent him. In the real world, when you need both parties to reach agreement and the president has no bottom line, you have a complete breakdown in governance. When the president is surrounded by a cadre of advisers whose policies sound straight out of the white nationalist handbook you may face a very long shutdown.