Sometimes winning in politics is about having a great strategy, and sometimes it's just about waiting for your opponent to shoot himself in the foot.
The latter is what appeared to happen Tuesday afternoon at the White House, with President Trump essentially bear-hugging the prospect of a government shutdown if Democrats don't give him what he wants from an immigration deal.
“I’d love to see a shutdown if we can’t get this stuff taken care of,” Trump said. “If we have to shut it down because the Democrats don't want safety . . . let's shut it down.”
Trump added later in the meeting: “Would I shut it down over this issue? Yes.”
It was a pretty remarkable statement given Democrats provided the "no" votes that briefly shut down the government last month and were generally viewed as having caved in those negotiations. It also would appear to signal an entirely new strategy for the GOP with just more than 48 hours left to avoid another shutdown.
I'm a little skeptical that Trump's comments Tuesday will truly matter when it comes to who would carry more blame for a shutdown — partisanship generally takes care of that — but the comments were certainly not helpful to congressional Republicans wary of being on the wrong side of a potential shutdown. And in fact, one GOP member present at the White House meeting, Rep. Barbara Comstock (Va.), even rebuked Trump.
“We don't need a government shutdown over this,” Comstock said.
Trump cut Comstock off and doubled down, saying, “You can say what you want. We are not getting support of the Democrats.”
But there is significant risk in this for Republicans. While Democrats technically provided the votes for the last shutdown and eventually backed down, they're the ones pushing for a highly popular policy (protecting young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, also known as "dreamers"), while the White House is pushing for a highly unpopular border wall. As Philip Bump wrote before the last shutdown, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is highly popular across all demographics, while the border wall is broadly unpopular and only earns approval from Republicans.
Trump's comments also would seem to signal an 11th-hour shift on strategy for the White House, if not the GOP as a whole. Trump appeared to suggest he wants his party to hold out for an immigration deal rather than continuing to fund the government if no deal can be struck. Leaders on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, had been negotiating a sweeping two-year budget deal without any provisions for DACA or the border wall.
The GOP preferred to simply fund the government last time, eventually agreeing to allow some kind of immigration vote in exchange for Democrats voting on a short-term government funding deal. The White House will need to clarify whether Trump is now saying he would veto any bill that doesn't include an immigration deal by the deadline for averting a shutdown on Thursday night.
Shortly after Trump's comments, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders seemed to temper them: “The president isn’t looking for this. But if the Democratic Party [won’t secure the border], then the president welcomes that fight.” Sanders added: "We are not advocating for a shutdown."
Except that's exactly what Trump was advocating for -- if Democrats don't give him what he wants. We can argue the semantics, but Democrats now have video of the president saying repeatedly that he welcomes such a shutdown.
Expect plenty of Republicans to be pulling their hair out over the next 48-plus hours, knowing Trump just opened them up to a possible shutdown that could turn out significantly worse than the last one.