President Trump has long said that keeping opponents off balance is the best way to win a negotiation. But nearly three weeks into a partial government shutdown, his usual playbook doesn’t seem to be working.

In his fight for a section of border wall, the president has dispatched aides to negotiate with lawmakers only to undercut their offers. He has declared a “crisis” at the U.S.-Mexico border but abruptly dropped a talking point about an influx of terrorists after it was proved false. And he has vacillated between threatening to declare a national emergency and professing to prefer a negotiated deal with Democrats.

On Wednesday, a day after delivering a prime-time Oval Office address to add gravitas to his public appeal, Trump abruptly walked out of a private meeting with lawmakers at the White House.

A “total waste of time,” Trump fumed on Twitter, lending credence to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s accusations that the president is prone to “temper tantrums” when he doesn’t get his way.

Trump’s approach is a hallmark of a president who eschews strategic planning and preparation in favor of day-to-day tactical maneuvering and trusting his gut. But as he digs in against an emboldened Democratic opposition, Trump has found that his go-to arsenal of bluster, falsehoods, threats and theatrics has laid bare his shortcomings as a negotiator — preventing him from finding a way out of what may be the biggest political crisis of his presidency.

“Doesn’t the president do everything ad hoc? He’s a gut politician,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates lower immigration levels. “He’s gotten out of boxes before, but this one is a zero-sum game. There are obvious resolutions on policy, but this is more of a political fight. Trump needs to say he got a win.”

Yet what a win looks like, and how he intends to get there, remain cloudy.

Though Trump plans to visit a Border Patrol station in McAllen, Tex., on Thursday, he revealed his antipathy about the photo op, confiding to television news correspondents in a private lunch this week that he was going only because aides insisted he do so, according to the New York Times.

With a lack of clarity from the White House, anxious Republicans say they are unsure what Trump would accept to end the standoff, while skeptical Democrats express doubt that the president can be trusted to stick with any deal he makes.

“Democrats keep saying, ‘We don’t trust it until Trump will sign it,’ ” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters Wednesday about the negotiations on Capitol Hill. “That’s not an unreasonable request. . . . We won’t know until we put something in front of him.”

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) pointed to a round of immigration negotiations with the White House a year ago. At more than one point, Democrats thought they had a deal with Trump to provide some wall funding in exchange for giving legal status to some undocumented immigrants — only to have him reject it in public.


President Trump speaks to journalists Wednesday before the Senate policy luncheon. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

“It has been frustrating,” Durbin said. “A year ago, we went through this on immigration reform. It did not end well.”

Meantime, public pressure is mounting on the White House.

Some moderate rank-and-file Republicans have signaled they would support reopening the government. A union representing Customs and Border Protection officers has sued the administration on behalf of federal workers who have not been paid. And news reports of airport delays, potential disruptions to food stamp assistance and a freeze on some government travel have prompted the administration to patch together temporary solutions.

Against that backdrop, Trump told reporters Wednesday that many of the 800,000 furloughed federal workers “are on my side.” In the end, he said, they would be paid and are “going to be happy.”

But in a sign that he has grown less confident of his standing, Trump insisted: “This is not a fight I wanted.” It was a remarkable assertion from a president who declared in a televised Oval Office meeting with Democratic leaders in mid-December that he would be “proud” to shut down the government for border security and would not blame them for it.

White House allies professed confusion over the president’s tactics. Trump aides initially signaled he would support a continuing resolution from Congress to fund the government through early February, but the president reversed course in the face of intense criticism from conservative talk show hosts and border hawks.

Since forcing a partial shutdown, the president has argued that a wall is necessary to block illegal drugs, even though the majority of contraband is smuggled through official U.S. ports of entry. He has said 4,000 terrorists were apprehended at the southern border, only to be challenged and proved wrong by reporters, including some from Fox News.

Trump has shifted his description of the wall to suggest the barrier will be made of steel slats to counter Democratic criticism of an “immoral” concrete behemoth and to comply with wishes from Border Patrol agents who prefer to be able to see activity across the border.

And he has simultaneously insisted that his hard-line immigration policies are working even while warning of a “crisis” of criminals and drugs “pouring into our country.”

“It’s fair to say that there’s been a variety of different asks and demands and statements by the administration, some of which have not always been accurate and some of which have been poorly received,” said David Inserra, a national security analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, which supports more restrictive immigration laws.

“The one place where you’ll find consistency has been their desire to say, ‘We want to stop illegal immigration,’ ” he added. “How do we stop it? Those arguments have been many and varied. To be fair, there are many arguments, but they seem to be searching for one to get some advantage in the political battle.”

In recent days, the White House has even shifted its messaging from focusing on national security concerns at the border to appealing to public empathy by describing the situation as a “humanitarian” emergency. A record number of migrant families with children, mostly from Central America, have been apprehended at the border over the past year, a problem that immigration advocates said has been exacerbated by the administration’s policies.

The Trump administration also has added new demands on top of the wall funding, including changes to immigration laws that would allow federal authorities to detain families for longer periods and speed up deportations by rolling back some due-process laws. These are moves that Democrats, and some Republicans, oppose.

For Republicans who have tried to stick with the mercurial president, the shifting goal posts have been frustrating. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he will not allow a vote on any bill to reopen the government unless he receives assurances from the White House that Trump supports it.

“It’s always difficult,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), “when the person you’re negotiating with is someone who changes their mind.”