The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘He takes no ownership — that’s just Trump’: President eschews responsibility for a shutdown he once craved

The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights

This stalemate is just the latest in a long line of threats from President Trump to shut down the government if he doesn't get his way. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In 2014, Donald Trump sued to have his name taken off a pair of Atlantic City casinos he built three decades earlier that had gone bankrupt.

It took the president just 10 days this month to remove his name from something else he once proudly owned but that wasn’t going great — the federal government shutdown.

After threatening a shutdown for months over border wall funding and vowing last week that he would “take the mantle” of responsibility, Trump tried to shift the blame Friday, just hours before a government funding bill expired at midnight.

“The Democrats now own the shutdown!” he wrote on Twitter.

That was news to Democrats. “You own the shutdown,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) responded in a tweet, adding a video clip of his meeting with Trump and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in the Oval Office in which the president declared: “I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it.”

Before signing a criminal justice reform bill, President Trump lauded the GOP for pushing for border wall funds and went on a diatribe against Democrats. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

“Yep, you said that,” wrote Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), an enthusiastic Trump antagonist. “There are tapes.”

The rhetorical Kabuki offered another example of a president who routinely contradicts himself without regard for the consequences. It also illustrated a chief executive who had brought Washington to the brink of a self-inflicted governance crisis with no clear strategy of how to manage the shutdown — or win it.

“It’s really indicative of how we all know he thinks so in-the-moment and so off-the-cuff that it winds up being dangerous,” said Jack O’Donnell, former president of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, one of the properties from which Trump removed his name.

“The whole idea of once things are going wrong, he takes no ownership — that’s just Trump,” O’Donnell added. “He does not own anything that goes wrong. The problem is, he’ll blame anybody. Obviously, it’s the Democrats in this situation.”

In the course of two weeks, Trump zigzagged between signaling that he would accept a short-term funding bill without the $5 billion he wanted for the wall and holding a hard line to force a shutdown.

He alternated between insisting that Mexico would pay for the wall through a convoluted, and false, interpretation of a new trade deal and suggesting that the U.S. military and other agencies would find money in their existing budgets to build the barrier if lawmakers failed to deliver — despite restrictions on federal agencies reprogramming funding.

And the president even began rebranding “the wall,” parrying Democratic denunciations of a concrete monolith at the U.S.-Mexico border by announcing that his administration would build “artistically designed steel slats.” That quickly prompted widespread derision.

The takeaway was a president flailing for leverage in a fight he picked. He even appeared to be conspiring with prominent conservative talk show hosts to help guide him. Rush Limbaugh boasted that Trump had “gotten word to me” that he would shut down the government if he failed to win the wall funding.

“The president wants you to know: It’s money or nothing,” Limbaugh told his listeners Thursday. “And if it’s nothing, he shuts it down.”

By Friday, a desperate Trump had seized on the “nuclear option” proposed by congressional border hawks to discard the Senate’s long-standing filibuster rules and approve with a majority vote a House-passed spending plan that included the $5 billion.

“Mitch, use the Nuclear Option and get it done!” Trump tweeted at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who after meeting with the president later in the day assured reporters he would do no such thing.

By early afternoon, with news websites and cable news networks posting ominous “shutdown countdown” clocks, with red numbers ticking away the hours and minutes until government agencies began furloughing employees and shuttering some services, Trump was projecting confidence that he was in the fight for the long haul.

Aides announced that he had indefinitely postponed his winter vacation at his Mar-a-Lago resort in south Florida, which was scheduled to begin Friday evening.

“We’re totally prepared for a very long shutdown,” Trump said at a bill-signing event.

But he insisted: “It’s up to the Democrats. So it’s really the Democrats’ shutdown.” He pointed to Pelosi’s suggestion last week that House Republicans lacked the votes to pass a spending bill with the wall money.

“We’ve done our thing,” Trump said.

In the case of his casinos, Trump had divested himself of control of the properties five years before he sued the new owners, having retained a 10 percent stake for the continued use of his moniker.

In his lawsuit to remove his name, Trump asserted that the properties, which twice under his management had faced bankruptcy, had fallen into disrepair and tarnished a Trump brand that “has become synonymous with the highest levels of quality, luxury, prestige and success.”

As the countdown clocks ticked Friday toward the start of the “#TrumpShutdown,” as Schumer tagged it on Twitter, the president seemed to sense a similar drag on his political fortunes — and a pressing need to push off the crisis onto a new set of owners.

To O’Donnell, the episode was “classic Trump.” The president, he said, had taken ownership of the shutdown in the televised showdown with Schumer and Pelosi to demonstrate his toughness to his base — without a plan to deal with the aftermath.

“That’s really what this was: ‘I’m a tough guy. Don’t think I can’t handle the heat,’ ” O’Donnell said. “The fact is, he can’t handle it.”