The drizzle of effects of the government shutdown morphed into a downpour, a winter storm of disruption, dysfunction and desperation that shocked stubborn politicians into action.
The 35-day shutdown was supposedly going to linger for months because President Trump’s base insisted on a wall along the border with Mexico and the Democratic base demanded that federal workers return to their jobs without condition.
Now, that debate has been kicked down the road for three weeks. Despite his vow that he would never reopen the government without money for the wall, Trump relented without the promise of a single dollar.
The startling about-face happened because the shutdown almost overnight came to seem dangerous: an economic threat, a shock to the safety of the skies, and a political punch that unsettled both parties.
In a 24-hour flurry of events that added up to a breaking point, flight attendants warned that high absenteeism among air traffic controllers who weren’t being paid posed a threat to passengers’ sense of safety. Long delays hit several major airports because of control-tower staffing shortages, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Ford and other major manufacturers warned that the shutdown was delivering a hard hit to the nation’s economy. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce alerted politicians that the travel and tourism industries were suffering harsh consequences. Thousands of Internal Revenue Service workers who had been ordered back to work to process tax refunds stayed home, many saying they couldn’t afford to get to their jobs without pay.
Several polls showed a serious drop in Americans’ optimism about the economy. The president’s disapproval numbers jumped five points, to 58 percent, from three months ago, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. And some senior members of Trump’s own administration started speaking out against the shutdown in strikingly sharp language.
“Making some people stay home when they don’t want to, and making others show up without pay, it’s mind-boggling, it’s shortsighted and it’s unfair,” FBI Director Christopher A. Wray told bureau employees in a video message. “It takes a lot to get me angry, but I’m about as angry as I’ve been in a long, long time.”
The 800,000 federal workers who were either barred from working or forced to work without pay had been frustrated for weeks that their plight was being ignored or pooh-poohed by people in power.
And on Thursday, a series of comments from Trump administration officials exacerbated that feeling. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross drew widespread ridicule for suggesting that federal workers who were lining up at food banks instead should just “get a loan.”
“That was ridiculous,” said Andrew Perry, 51, whose wait Friday for a flight from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Miami had stretched beyond two hours. “No matter what your means are, you can’t get a loan that quickly. . . . I know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck.”
The scene at airports in New York, Newark, Philadelphia and other big cities, where long delays resulted from the shortage of traffic controllers, helped persuade Trump that the shutdown had to come to an end, according to White House officials.
Many travelers said Friday’s inconveniences cemented their belief that the shutdown was an unnecessary, juvenile battle that was more about a refusal to back down than about any deep rift over policy.
Stefanie Cornwall, 27, arrived for her Spirit flight out of Philadelphia International Airport 30 minutes earlier than she typically would. Cornwall, who was flying to Los Angeles to visit family, had serious concerns that the shutdown was affecting travel safety.
“It’s obviously annoying when you have to wait in line for a long time, but what’s more concerning is whether the planes are being properly checked,” she said. Although she had been talking about the shutdown with friends and family for weeks, this was the first time she felt directly affected.
“I’m affected because it’s annoying and it’s a nuisance to me, but for these federal workers, they’re not being paid, even when they’re coming in to work,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.”
“Do we have your attention, Congress?” the Association of Flight Attendants said in a statement early Friday that warned that air safety workers were “fatigued, worried and distracted. . . . Our country’s entire economy is on the line.”
Democrats and Republicans alike felt public opinion shifting. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said Friday that the airport trouble “ratchets up pressure tremendously.” And Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) sensed that the effects of the shutdown “have become very real and very personal for a lot of people who aren’t getting paid, and it obviously has a lot of impacts on ATC and TSA and a lot of other pretty important functions and agencies right now.” The initials stand for air traffic controllers and the Transportation Security Administration.
In the end, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said, the public’s mounting worry about the shutdown’s economic impact moved politicians off their hard stances.
“With public sentiment, you can accomplish anything,” she said.
For the president, backing down from his vow not to reopen the government without a down payment of $5.7 billion on the wall he wanted to fulfill a signature 2016 campaign promise was both a convenient distraction and a dangerous retreat.
Settling the shutdown crisis provided Trump with a chance to deliver one of his trademark preemptions of bad publicity. His Rose Garden appearance instantly changed the national conversation away from the arrest Friday morning of his longtime adviser, Roger Stone, on charges that Stone lied to Congress about his role in the effort to undermine Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
On cable news channels, a seven-hour-long marathon of coverage of the indictment of one of Trump’s most loyal associates ended, replaced by live video of the president’s lectern. It was another assertion of the president’s ability to change the subject and monopolize the nation’s attention.
But Trump also was bitterly attacked for agreeing to end the shutdown without gaining any money for the wall.
Although public opinion weighed heavily against the shutdown all along, it had shifted in the past few days from concern for unpaid workers to insecurity about the well-being and safety even of people with no government ties.
Ben Alderman, who was heading home to Chicago from LaGuardia, said he was “dumbfounded” by Ross’s remarks and appalled by the “political games” that politicians were playing with federal workers’ lives. He said politicians appear to genuinely believe that missed wages “are not really important to people,” said Alderman, 35. “It’s divorced from reality.”
A frequent air traveler who works in financial services, Alderman said he wasn’t frightened to fly Friday, but he was glad flights were delayed rather than pushed into the air despite high absenteeism among traffic controllers and TSA agents.
“What happened this morning is a testament to our safety,” he said. “If there aren’t enough people working, planes shouldn’t be in the air.”
Joe Keefe, an asset management executive, was booked on a flight from LaGuardia to Boston. But in the middle of his business in New York, he saw the news about the airport delays and changed his plans.
“We decided to take the train,” said Keefe, 65, of Rye, N.H. The change was the first concrete impact the shutdown had had on him, but he’d been upset about it all along. “I hope it’s a political disaster for him,” he said, referring to Trump. “The American people know where the blame lies. . . . It’s a manufactured crisis.”
Pete Nischt, 32, of Akron, Ohio, didn’t like the shutdown from the start, and now his flight from New York to Cleveland was delayed for three hours. In recent days, as he saw how people who had gone without pay for a month were suffering, he came to view the failure to pay public employees as “a breach of the social contract. Trump has been lying the whole time . . . and now we’re paying for it.”
The scope of that suffering seemed to metastasize late this week. At the IRS, at least 14,000 unpaid workers who were supposed to be in the office, preparing to process an avalanche of tax refunds, either could not be reached by their bosses or were out on “hardship” leave, in many cases because they said they could no longer afford gasoline to get to work.
Rosemary Bruscato, 50, who has worked at the IRS in Kansas City, Mo., for 10 years, said her manager placed her on leave after a two-minute conversation. It cost her $20 each week to fill the tank of her Ford Focus, and she had been paid zero dollars in 35 days.
“There was no retaliation or anything,” she said. “They were very understanding.”
Even as Congress finally moved toward funding the shuttered portions of the government, many workers struggled to meet their expenses. In many cases, it was missing that second paycheck on Friday that put them over the edge.
In the District, the Greater DC Diaper Bank has given away 33,800 diapers, 50,684 feminine hygiene products and nearly 7,900 incontinence supplies to federal workers, including Deborah Myrick, a D.C. Superior Court employee who picked up diapers and formula for her two grandchildren.
“It’s frustrating,” said Myrick, who lives in Temple Hills, Md. “There’s no other way to put it. I can’t manage without a check.”
Myrick and other employees stood in a line that snaked around World Central Kitchen’s #ChefsforFeds pop-up kitchen, which offered free lunch, vegetables, fruit, pet food and diapers. Some people hung their heads, as though they did not want to be spotted, and many declined to talk about it. One man picking up diapers said he felt a deep sense of shame that, as someone who is employed, he needed to seek help.
“The whole thing is very numbing,” Cynthia Clarke, an administrative assistant with the U.S. Agency for Global Media, said as she sipped vegetable soup. “This is a man-made disaster. I know what a natural disaster looks like. I’ve been through earthquakes. This was man-made. This was unnecessary.”
Guarino reported from New York. Simone Sebastian in New York, Rebecca Tan in Philadelphia and Mark Berman, Tim Carman, Josh Dawsey, Mike DeBonis, and Danielle Paquette in Washington contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this report misidentified the Transportation Security Administration as the Transportation Safety Administration.