Trump was a solitary, and unscripted, figure when he spoke on Friday in the Rose Garden. His presentation was rambling and unfocused. He talked about trade with China and Great Britain, negotiations with North Korea, and the economy and the stock market before getting to the prime topic. Though he cast many of those things in upbeat terms, it was not a performance by a president who believes he is winning.
This was, however, a more authentic Trump than the politician the nation saw two weeks ago, when he gave his State of the Union address. In that setting, Trump’s speech was laced with appeals for bipartisanship, tributes to genuine American heroes and initiatives that seemed unusual to this president and designed to attract voters outside his core coalition who aren’t with him but might be needed for his reelection campaign.
In the House chamber that night, the nation saw the heavily scripted Trump, a teleprompter politician who delivered his lines as written and who had his party enthusiastically behind him. He even got some applause from the Democrats, which is no small thing. His approval ratings went up afterward, though history suggests such spikes are usually transitory.
Trump was in a weakened position when he gave his State of the Union, coming as it did after a searing defeat in his first confrontation with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the new Democratic majority in the House. That deadlock over funding for a border wall resulted in a 35-day government shutdown from which the president emerged empty-handed.
Trump was in the Rose Garden on Friday because he had suffered a second and seemingly definitive setback at the hands of Congress, this time with the help of Republicans. When Trump had agreed to reopen the government absent a deal on the border late last month, he had put the fate of his border wall in the hands of House and Senate negotiators.
Trump must have imagined that he would do better than during the first round, though there was little evidence to suggest Democrats were likely to budge or Republicans were prepared to risk another shutdown by holding the line for the president. As a result, the bipartisan negotiators agreed on $1.375 billion for the border wall.
There was no way for the president to spin the outcome as a victory, and he is clearly unhappy with the deal. He reportedly complained that he could have done a better job of negotiating, though he had passed up better deals at several points over many months. Once again, he proved he is far from the master dealmaker that he long has claimed to be.
If there was no appetite on Capitol Hill for a second shutdown, there also wasn’t much of one for having the president declare a national emergency to circumvent Congress to pay for a wall.
Republicans had warned the president against such a move, knowing that it would represent a usurpation of congressional power over spending and that a future Democratic president could invoke the same power for issues such as gun control or climate change if the declaration survives a lengthy series of court challenges.
But Trump’s unhappiness played out late in the week in ways that again told Republican lawmakers that loyalty is a one-way street with him. He agreed to sign the new funding agreement, but it came at the cost of forcing Republican officials to bend to his will on the declaration of a national emergency.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) was the highest-profile Republican who collapsed under pressure from Trump, announcing on the Senate floor Thursday that Trump would declare an emergency and that he would support the declaration. It was another pathetic moment for the concept of the separation of powers.
On Friday, Trump said he was declaring an emergency because of a national security crisis on the border, “an invasion” as he put it. Government statistics show border crossings are low compared to past years. Trump said he had statistics that proved otherwise. (The biggest crisis on the border this past year has been one caused by the Trump administration’s decision to separate children from their parents, something still being sorted out.)
Remarkably, the president didn’t even make a strong case to support his decision. In fact, he did the opposite. He went so far as to acknowledge that he was declaring an emergency only as a way to speed up the process of building a wall. “I could do the wall over a longer period of time,” he said. “I didn’t need to do this. I’d rather do it much faster.”
Trump’s words are not a statement that Justice Department lawyers, who will be defending the declaration against expected court challenges, will likely welcome.
Though he claimed the decision had nothing to do with the 2020 election, Trump sounded like a politician who was playing to his base by promising to deliver a core promise from his 2016 campaign.
For Republican lawmakers, these past weeks have been a bracing reminder of the man who hijacked their party in 2016 and re-created it in his image, a man who has forced them to live with the consequences. Their relationship remains fraught, as this whole episode has illustrated. Look at the record.
Trump upended one spending agreement, after signaling acceptance, which caused the government to shut down for a record length of time and caused embarrassment for McConnell. He stubbornly allowed the shutdown to run to the point of pain for federal workers, disruption for those who depend on government services and political worries for fellow Republicans. Only then did he cut his losses. In declaring a national emergency, he flagrantly ignored the advice of many in the GOP hierarchy and caused them to buy into something they think is a mistake.
The president is still a long way from having the money to build the kind of wall he promised during the campaign, though he has shown his base he is willing to take extraordinary action to fulfill that promise. For this president, that may be everything. For those in the party he controls, especially those in Congress, the week was another reminder that, when it comes to Trump, it’s all about him and rarely about them.