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Inside Trump’s snow day: A flurry of doubts over spending bill, then a truce

Snow falls outside the White House on Wednesday. (Eric Thayer/Bloomberg News)

For once, it wasn’t a tweet.

Instead, congressional Republicans were jolted Wednesday morning by phone calls from White House officials, who confided that President Trump was unhappy with the party’s nearly finalized spending deal.

Trump had been up since dawn, keeping an eye on cable-television programs and venting to friends and aides as snow blanketed the executive residence. He complained that the $1.3 trillion proposal included just $1.6 billion for border security funding along the U.S.-Mexico border — not the $25 billion for a border wall that his administration had sought, according to five people familiar with the discussions.

Trump also griped about a proposed tunnel heading into New York — a project beloved by Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) — that he has ferociously tried to block as part of the negotiations. 

Veto threats were made amid grumbles over various aspects of the bill, even as Trump resisted tweeting about it.

Allies of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) were alarmed, the people said, once again realizing that only Trump speaks for Trump.

They had been hammering out the details of the spending package with the White House’s legislative staff for weeks and were planning to give a brief update to the president in the afternoon, followed by final votes in both chambers later this week. The people familiar with the discussions were not authorized to speak publicly.

But as senior aides tried to sell Trump on the deal all week, he had hesitated to embrace it. In recent days, he has insisted to associates that congressional Republicans “owe” him more money for the wall since he has raised them millions for their reelection bids and signed the GOP-authored tax bill into law, according to one person close to Trump.

Tuesday’s dinner gala for the National Republican Congressional Committee — the $32 million that event raised for House lawmakers, in particular — was on the president’s mind, the person added.

A White House official, meanwhile, said Trump loyalists who dislike Ryan and McConnell, such as Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), have only stoked Trump’s gut feeling that the spending deal is lacking. They also have told Trump that he will be criticized for such a large sum of spending. 

“It is troubling when we get a tunnel and we don’t get a wall,” Meadows said on Capitol Hill. “The president didn’t make campaign promises on a tunnel.”

Ryan and members of his team huddled upon hearing the reports from their West Wing contacts and decided to still move forward with plans to walk the president through the agreement and address his concerns. Several White House officials encouraged them to do that, the people said, hoping to salvage the fragile negotiations that had been all but completed by Tuesday night — and avoid another shutdown of the federal government when funding expires Friday.

And more than a year into the Trump presidency, many White House officials and senior congressional Republicans have come to see these episodes not so much as crises but typical of Trump’s leadership style. He is known to nod along when GOP leaders and advisers tell him things are going well on an issue, but then, after calling around his network of boosters inside Congress or in the conservative media, he grows skeptical or suspicious of the process.

Ryan arrived at the White House around lunchtime in his caravan of SUVs. Vice President Pence attended the meeting, as did senior aides to the attendees. McConnell joined by speakerphone.

Over the next 45 minutes, gathered together in the residence, they all made their pitch to Trump in support of the spending agreement, the people said. They argued that he was getting money for the border wall at a level the White House had been signaling was acceptable. They told him that he was also getting infrastructure funding — one of his priorities. They told him the significant tick up in funding for the military was included and politically popular. These were all arguments he had heard before, from his own senior aides. 

Trump listened but said he wanted more money for the wall, and he lashed out about the Gateway program — the infrastructure project pushed by his foil, Schumer. He told his visitors that Schumer should not be able to get his request unless the border wall was sufficiently funded.

Trump emphasized that he wants several years of wall funding, a position on which aides said he is more animated than ever after returning from a trip to California, where he saw prototypes. He’s even floated giving Democrats several years of protections for “dreamers” in return, a notion that is seen as politically risky by his aides or Republicans.

Ryan and others told Trump that the Gateway project was not guaranteed funds in the bill. While money could flow toward it after passage, they contested the suggestion that Schumer had scored a victory — and said that Trump had won.

Trump again listened, far from pleased with the case being made, but did not balk.

Eventually, Trump sighed and said he’s fine with the bill — and the meeting soon ended, with Ryan ducking out into the snow. A reporter for NBC News snapped a blurry picture of the speaker being whisked off in the snow.

White House officials and congressional Republicans quickly moved to issue statements affirming Trump’s support, almost “wishing it into reality,” as one official said late Wednesday afternoon. In private conversations at the Capitol, aides shook their heads at another dramatic encounter with Trump, another time when he had nearly brought his party to the brink of a shutdown.

“The speaker met with the president this afternoon to discuss the emerging funding bill. They had a good conversation about the wins delivered for the president, and he is supportive of the bill,” Ryan spokesman Doug Andres said in a statement.

Added White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, “The president and the leaders discussed their support for the bill,” and she gave a list of the line items that Ryan and McConnell had touted.

Trump, however, did not echo that enthusiasm on Twitter or elsewhere. In the residence, he tweeted about the “fake news media” and kept making calls to friends and advisers, talking about how much he wanted more money for the wall in a bill he had reluctantly agreed to sign.

Several people involved in the talks said Trump could change his mind before the government is set to shut down Friday night.

Still, Trump seemed happier with the deal than before the legislative leaders arrived.

That was the truce, at least, on a snow day.