President Trump and the GOP’s confrontation over a border wall not only provoked the longest government shutdown in history but inflicted serious political damage and deepening rifts in a party reeling from midterm losses and facing daunting challenges in 2020.
In private, irritated Republican senators lashed out at each other over the 35-day shutdown — with conservative hard-liners and moderates attacking Trump’s strategy and his decision to capitulate by reopening the government without winning a dime for his border wall. Many congressional Republicans say they knew the impasse would not end well for the GOP, but went along with Trump in the name of party unity.
Now, with Trump’s approval numbers dropping and Republicans divided in the aftermath, the party is looking to repair the short-term political harm they suffered — even as they face another showdown over the same issue next month.
“I hope we get some common sense out of it,” Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) said, reflecting on what the Republican Party gained from the shutdown fight. “We lost the election in November and now we’ve lost six weeks to get our strength back, to get our position back.”
The shutdown — prompted by Trump’s demand for a portion of a border wall that Democrats made clear they would never indulge — saddled Republicans with yet another political crisis at one of the most tempestuous moments of the Trump presidency.
It came fewer than three months after a midterm election that handed Democrats control of the House and exposed major problems for the GOP among suburban voters and women, which may predict greater difficulties in 2020.
And it landed as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election has moved deeper into Trump’s inner circle, raising questions about the future of his presidency with a Democratic House armed with investigatory and impeachment powers.
Interviews with Republican lawmakers and strategists illustrated the frustration and discord within the party over the partial government closure, which Trump said in December he would be “proud” to take responsibility for.
“He put a lot of American federal workers through hell for nothing. This whole idea of building the wall was not something that had any validity on Capitol Hill,” said former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele. “If this was a such a priority for them, why didn’t they pass it over the last two years?”
Indeed, it was clear from the start of the wall confrontation that it would only get more difficult for Trump to get the desired funding, particularly when Democrats officially took control of the House on Jan. 3. Trump had been talked out of a showdown over the wall in previous spending fights, as congressional Republicans warned him of the potential electoral consequences.
That meant Republicans made no major strides toward wall construction in the first two years of the presidency, focusing instead on a successful push to overhaul the tax code and a failed attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. There was also never any serious effort to force Mexico to pay for a wall, as Trump had promised dozens of times during his 2016 campaign.
But once Trump signaled late last year that he would not extend funding for about a fourth of the federal government without wall money, Republican lawmakers aligned themselves with him in a fight few of them believed was worth waging.
Now, they are left reconsidering their decision to hitch themselves to Trump despite pressure to break with him as they plot their moves for the next three weeks, before the next shutdown deadline arrives.
Several believe the party has learned its lesson.
“I came to the conclusion a long time ago that none of these are a good idea,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, one of the handful of Senate Republicans who broke from Trump and the broader party strategy. “What I have heard from our conference is a greater number of voices that are saying, ‘Hey, this does not work so well. This is not a tool that we should be using.’ ”
Yet Murkowski noted that in a party lunch on Friday, some Republican senators said they “never really felt the urgency” of the funding lapse, except perhaps when they were going through airport security.
“It was stunning to me,” Murkowski said.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who was tapped to serve on the bipartisan committee that will try to strike a border security deal by Feb. 15, said she believes that now, after the pain of a shutdown, that “more people would be willing to stand in the way.”
“I hail from a state that’s very supportive of the president and very supportive of border security with barriers, and so that’s a consideration for me,” she said. “But there’s a lot of other strategies I think we can employ that would work better.”
Capito, who is up for reelection next year in a heavily pro-Trump state, said the blame will probably be shared by both parties. But she added, “You know, the president did say in his statements publicly that the shutdown, that he would take responsibility for it.”
“I think that pretty much speaks for itself and I guess time will tell whether that’s reflected in” the polling, Capito added.
The immediate political impact is hard to miss.
Trump’s approval rating stands at just 37 percent, according to a new Washington Post-ABC poll conducted Jan. 21 through Jan. 24. About 58 percent of the public disapproves of Trump’s job performance — a figure that rose 5 percent since November. Far more people blamed the GOP for the shutdown, with 53 percent faulting Trump and congressional Republicans, compared with 34 percent for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Democratic lawmakers.
GOP officials have noted that some polls that have split congressional Republicans from Trump in questions asking who is at fault have found voters blame GOP lawmakers less. For example, a CBS News-YouGov poll conducted Jan. 9 to 11 said just 3 percent of the public blamed Hill Republicans for the partial shutdown, compared with 47 percent for Trump and 30 percent for congressional Democrats.
Republican pollster Chris Wilson predicted that the shutdown could be long forgotten by the time the 2020 elections arrive. In the fall of 2013, congressional Republicans instigated a 16-day government shutdown in a bid to defund the Affordable Care Act, yet handily seized control of the Senate about a year later.
“This far out from 2020, with the speed of modern news cycles, we’re about a thousand stories from the next election, any one of which may make a lot more difference than this one,” he said.
But Steele, the former RNC chairman, took a different view: “It’s rather offensive to presume people will forget the fact that their credit rating is wrecked or they know they have to catch up on mortgage payments.”
Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who faces reelection in a deeply conservative state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016, had no reservations about criticizing the president’s conduct during the shutdown.
“I think this was a real low point for the president,” said Jones, who said he received no overtures from the White House on seeking support for the border-wall package.
It was also a low point for a Senate GOP conference that was in a stronger position than the rest of the party, having picked up two seats in the midterms and buoyed by base-galvanizing wins, such as the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Anger over the shutdown reached a boiling point during a private luncheon of Republican senators Thursday, in which Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) told Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), “This is your fault,” according to two Republicans who attended the lunch and witnessed the exchange.
“Are you suggesting I’m enjoying this?” McConnell snapped back, according to people who attended the lunch. Johnson, who has long had a tense relationship with McConnell, was voicing his frustration with that day’s events, according to his spokesman, Ben Voelkel.
Johnson faced some pushback in the meeting, according to one of the Republicans, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a closed-door session.
On the right, more problems are looming for Trump. Some leading activists, such as conservative commentator Ann Coulter, lashed out against the president for not fighting harder for money to build part of his wall.
Trump allies asserted that he hasn’t yet lost on the wall, with three more weeks to secure money for it. The president could force another shutdown or declare a national emergency to finally fulfill an oft-repeated promise, allies said.
In a private meeting earlier this week, Trump signaled to conservative leaders that he wasn’t giving up on the wall. And they said they are counting on him to follow through.
“I think that if he gets movement and he gets a reasonable construction schedule on a good portion of the 230 miles, that his base will be right back and be totally engaged,” said Ken Blackwell of the Family Research Council, who attended the meeting, referring to the initial wall project sought by Trump.
But Blackwell added: “If he doesn’t get any movement and he doesn’t pull the trigger [on an emergency declaration], then the base will be frustrated. You will start to see some serious deterioration of support.”