For the second time in two major legislative battles, the Trump White House has issued an ultimatum — only to back down.
In the health care debate, the president was going to force a House vote on the package and dare skeptical Republicans to vote against replacing Obamacare, before abandoning that plan in the face of defeat.
And now, in the government funding debate, he's backing off his previous demand that Congress approve funding for his border wall. As The Washington Post's Philip Rucker, Robert Costa and David Weigel report:
But with a Friday deadline looming to pass a new spending bill, the Trump administration projected confidence that a shutdown would be avoided. In the face of fierce Democratic opposition to funding the wall’s construction, White House officials signaled Monday that the president may be open to an agreement that includes money for border security if not specifically for a wall, with an emphasis on technology and border agents rather than a structure.
Trump showed even more flexibility Monday afternoon, telling conservative journalists in a private meeting that he was open to delaying funding for wall construction until September, a White House official confirmed.
The wall, of course, was the biggest applause line for Trump throughout his campaign — often taking the form of a call-and-response with his approving crowds. And given how divisive it is, inserting it into must-pass legislation like a government funding bill seemed to be the best way to get what Trump wants.
That's what the White House tried. Office of Management and Budget Chairman Mick Mulvaney said last week that any government-funding bill must include funding for the border wall. Throughout the weekend, top White House aides including Mulvaney suggested Trump might veto a spending bill that doesn't fund his border wall. Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told The Post on Sunday that Trump's insistence on that point remained strong.
Fast forward a little more than 24 hours, and Trump apparently abandoned that demand. With still four days to go in the funding battle, he showed his hard-line stance wasn't so hard-line, after all. Basically, he had his bluff called — again.
He took what is likely his best chance at getting funding for something he promised to voters dozens upon dozens of times, and he didn't even bring it close to the finish line to make Democrats sweat. Indeed, the likelihood that Congress is going to agree to fund the wall at a later date seems considerably less than it would be this week. Trump has essentially taken his wall and turned it into a metaphorical wall — substituting increased enforcement — rather than a brick-and-mortar one.
This kind of bluffing and having it called is undoubtedly something Trump is used to in the business and real estate worlds. But in the political world, you are negotiating with the same people over and over again. And the lesson of the first two big congressional debates is that when Trump says a bill must contain XYZ, he doesn't really mean it; it's just posturing. And that doesn't bode well for future Trump demands.
During the last government shutdown in 2013, when Republicans demanded defunding
Planned Parenthood Obamacare, they were at least willing to follow through on that demand. The government was closed for more than two weeks before the GOP relented. That served notice to Democrats that Republicans were at the very least willing to go all-in on their strategy and follow through — that they weren't bluffing when they made such demands in order for a bill to pass. And that made their threats on other things seem more legitimate.
Trump has shown no such inclination to make it so people take his demands at face value. And given what's happened in the first two legislative debates, the next time he draws a line in the sand, you can bet lawmakers know how easily it can be raked over.