The cruelty of government shutdowns is pain is a necessary component. Inconveniences and economic ill effects are what put pressure on both sides to bring it to an end. Without real pain, sad anecdotes in the media and constituents complaining to their lawmakers, there is far less of an incentive to do that. And for President Trump, his own self-declared ownership of the shutdown accordingly comes with PR challenges and harm for his personal priorities.
Unless, of course, his administration just manipulates them away.
In recent days, the Trump administration has taken a number of steps conspicuously geared toward Trump’s legacy items and especially unhelpful PR narratives.
The most recent among them is the Tuesday extension of a deadline for the farmer bailout. This is a bailout the administration was forced to offer to help farmers who were adversely affected by Trump’s trade war (another bit of manipulation). With the government partially shut down, applications submitted in advance of the Jan. 15 deadline could not be processed, so Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has now extended the deadline until after the shutdown ends. This does not help the farmers who aren’t getting aid in the meantime — which is a big and more immediate issue — but it does prevent longer-term damage from the shutdown, which would be inextricably tied to Trump’s controversial trade war.
On Monday, something similar happened with tax refunds. The IRS said last year and in previous administrations it could not issue refunds during a government shutdown, but the White House decided to force it to do so — which is legally questionable. That is especially convenient for Trump, not just because it means people can get their refunds earlier, but also because it is the first filing season to take place after the GOP tax cuts bill went fully into effect.
So that is perhaps Trump’s signature foreign-policy effort (the trade war) and his signature legislative accomplishment (the tax cuts) that have both been exempted from some of the pain of the shutdown.
Actions have also been taken when it comes to some of the more unhelpful narratives of the shutdown for the administration. After trash piled up and several deaths occurred at national parks, the National Park Service announced it would use entrance fees for cleanup and provide some staffing — despite those fees apparently being legally earmarked for visitor services instead of operations and maintenance. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has sent letters to 1,500 landlords asking them not to evict tenants who relied upon a government program that cannot be renewed during the shutdown.
And as The Washington Post reported Monday amid the IRS decision:
... It is also the latest in a string of sudden shifts and legal reversals that have seen the White House reverse precedent in the face of public pressure. Senior administration officials changed rules to pay Coast Guard salaries in December, restart an IRS program to clear mortgage applications and reopen some national parks. They are now searching for ways to prevent the nation’s food assistance program from running out of money. Unless the shutdown ends, the program lacks funds to cover expected demand in February. By March, it would be out of money entirely. A new legal ruling on the issue could come this week.
The acting director of the White House Office and Management and Budget, Russell Vought, explained at the time: “We have tried to make this as painless as possible, consistent with the law."
But several of the decisions are legally controversial, and such efforts necessarily mean picking winners and losers — losers who do not catch such breaks with exemptions. It is unquestionable that people will like protecting farmers and getting their refunds earlier rather than later, but it is notable these are geared toward narratives that could be especially harmful to Trump’s cause, personally.
It is also clear the administration is trying to guard against other story lines that could hamstring its shutdown efforts, including mass evictions and further decay and death at national parks. Mitigating all these factors could help Trump draw out the string on his border-wall demands, even as other areas that are not priorities for him may suffer for a longer period.