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‘Negotiating with Jell-O’: How Trump’s shifting positions fueled the rush to a shutdown

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) faulted President Trump and Senate Republicans for the government shutdown. (Video: U.S. Senate)

In a remarkable, televised 55-minute meeting with about two dozen Democratic and Republican lawmakers earlier this month, President Trump twice proclaimed that any immigration deal would need to be "a bill of love" — setting an optimistic tone for averting a government shutdown with a bipartisan solution.  

After the president ordered cameras out of the Cabinet Room that day, the group delved into the details. Kirstjen Nielsen, Trump's homeland security secretary, and her staff passed out a four-page document on the administration's "must haves" for any immigration bill — a hard-line list that included $18 billion for Trump's promised border wall, eliminating the diversity visa lottery program and ending "extended family chain migration," according to the document, which was obtained by The Washington Post.

But one person seemed surprised and alarmed by the memo: the president.

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With Democrats and Republicans still in the room, Trump said that the document didn't represent all of his positions, that he wasn't familiar with its contents and that he didn't appreciate being caught off-guard. He instructed the group to disregard the summary and move on, according to one of the lawmakers in the room, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe a private conversation.

"It's like the wedding where someone actually stands up and objects to the wedding," the lawmaker said. "It was that moment." 

That meeting nearly two weeks ago, and the president's ambivalence, marked the beginning of yet another period of Trump-fueled tumult that helped push the federal government into a shutdown at midnight Friday. Pinging from one upheaval to the next — while clearly not understanding the policy nuances of the negotiation — Trump clashed at different times with Democrats and members of his own party, who grew increasingly exasperated with the president even as they sought to cast blame upon the other side.

Everything you need to know about a government shutdown

"I'm looking for something that President Trump supports," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in public frustration at one point late in the negotiations. "And he's not yet indicated what measure he's willing to sign."

In government spending fight, GOP embraces hard-line immigration stance

Trump is a self-proclaimed dealmaker who has struggled to close critical deals as president — an unreliable negotiator who seems to promise one thing only to renege days, or even hours, later. He boasts of being "flexible" and has few core ideological convictions, yet often seems torn between his desire for a bipartisan "win" and the pull of the nationalist populism he ran on. In politics, he resembles at times an amateur jazz musician — moody and improvisational, but without the technical chops to hold a piece together.

The early weeks of 2018 have felt eerily similar to those of 2017, as upheaval has consumed the president's agenda and message — including the shutdown battle, a tell-all book chronicling a president at sea and news of a payout before the 2016 election to a porn star alleging an affair with Trump.

"Negotiating with President Trump is like negotiating with Jell-O," Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) complained on the Senate floor Saturday, some 12 hours into the shutdown. "It's next to impossible."

This account of Trump's divisive role in shutdown negotiations is based on interviews with more than a dozen lawmakers, White House advisers, government aides and Trump confidants, most of whom requested anonymity to discuss private negotiations.

The talks seemed to begin with promise. Trump loved the positive press he received from the Cabinet Room meeting-turned-reality-show on Jan. 9. He hoped to be the bipartisan dealmaker who could both keep the government open and provide legislative protections for "dreamers," the nearly 690,000 young immigrants facing deportation after Trump announced an end to Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, according to an outside adviser.

"The construct that always works for the president is saying, 'Bush couldn't get it done, Obama couldn't get it done, but I can get it done,' " said Jason Miller, a former Trump campaign adviser. "That is his sweet spot." 

Two days into the negotiations, on Jan. 11, Trump the negotiator seemed to signal he was ready to deal — inviting Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) to the White House to present their ideas for a compromise to stave off a shutdown.

But when Durbin and Graham arrived, they found an angry president, surrounded by hawkish immigration opponents and no longer amenable to the deal he'd praised in phone calls just hours earlier. At one point, Trump dismissed immigrants from African nations as coming from "shithole" countries and wondered why he had to allow them into the United States. He also said he would prefer people from countries such as Norway. The racially charged remarks reported by The Post thrust the president into yet another controversy of his own making and further complicated the shutdown talks.

Everything you need to know about the government shutdown

Despite his vocal frustration, Graham continued to try to work with Trump, turning a televised Senate hearing with Nielsen the following week into a personal appeal to the president.

"So Tuesday, we had a president that I was proud to golf with, call my friend, who understood immigration had to be bipartisan, you had to have border security," Graham said, referring to the initial Jan. 9 meeting and addressing Nielsen as if speaking directly to Trump. "But he also understood the idea that we had to do it with compassion." 

Graham flung his arms apart and concluded: "Now I don't know where that guy went. I want him back." 

Trump, meanwhile, viewed Graham's increasingly public criticisms as disloyal, according to one outside adviser.

Within Trump's broader orbit of outside friends and confidants, however, there was growing concern that a shutdown would offer only "downside for the Republicans," said another informal adviser who recently spoke with Trump.

This adviser added that some allies worried Trump was making poor political decisions and would struggle with the optics of a shutdown — including images of Trump and some of his advisers departing for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this coming week. 

"That's the Democrats' ad: Your government closes, and Trump does a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago and half the Cabinet goes to Davos," the adviser said, referring to a scheduled event at Trump's private Florida club Saturday night.

About a week out from a possible shutdown, Trump, too, was becoming frustrated. He groused that his staff had "failed him" by not reaching a better compromise on Capitol Hill. Morale among mid-level staff in the West Wing and Eisenhower Executive Office Building had plummeted, said two people familiar with the mood inside the White House.

As the shutdown loomed, the president grew more erratic. In the first week, he set off a 101-minute scramble after tweeting that Congress should vote against a foreign surveillance bill that his own White House was championing after watching a segment on "Fox and Friends." This past Thursday, he did it again — taking to Twitter to suggest that the Children's Health Insurance Program should not be included in any short-term spending bill. The stance directly contradicted the strategy of congressional Republicans, who were attempting to use CHIP to lure reluctant Democrats into supporting the plan.

A White House official called it "deja vu."

The president, however, did not seem to fully grasp just how problematic his CHIP tweet was for his own party. Minutes after tweeting his criticism, Trump spoke by phone with McConnell, according to people familiar with the conversation. Trump praised the Republican bill, showed no reluctance when McConnell explained his plan to forge ahead with it and made no mention of his tweet, these people said. Trump also reassured House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) that he liked the bill as it was. 

The whole episode left congressional leaders puzzled: Why, they wondered, would the president tweet something negative about their legislation and rattle Republican lawmakers without ever raising concerns with them — and then act as if nothing had happened?

 Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), speaking to reporters Friday night about his general frustrations with the process, said that "our country was founded by geniuses, but it's being run by idiots."

Meanwhile, Trump had also begun feuding with his chief of staff, John Kelly, who had helped impose discipline in the White House and shared many of Trump's more conservative immigration views. But he and Nielsen had also been privately complaining about Trump's campaign promise to build a wall on the southern border as ill-advised and "silly" since their early days in the administration, when Kelly was secretary of homeland security and Nielson was his senior adviser, according to a person familiar with their discussions.

Against that backdrop on Wednesday, Kelly told lawmakers in a private meeting that Trump had "evolved" on his view of the wall and that some of the more hard-line immigration policies Trump had pushed for during the campaign were "uninformed." He repeated the general message in a television interview the same day.

The president was furious and pushed back against his chief of staff in a series of tweets the next day without directly naming him. "The Wall is the Wall," he wrote. "It has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it." 

The final 24 hours before the shutdown played out in a dizzying series of private huddles, frenzied phone calls and belligerent public pronouncements from both sides. Through it all, the president remained mercurial and unreadable even to those ostensibly negotiating with him.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), head of the conservative Freedom Caucus, said Trump called him Thursday to say he wanted the House to debate a more conservative immigration bill being proposed by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). But the president also said he did not want a shutdown. "He mentioned that several times," Meadows said.

And Trump — who has previously told associates a shutdown might be good for him politically — complained that he would be blamed for any outcome. Shutdowns, he concluded, never help the people in charge. 

‘Pulling at his strings’: Lawmakers vie to sway Trump in immigration fight

He made an impromptu call Friday to Schumer and invited him to the White House, worrying congressional Republican leaders and aides who feared, in the words of one, that they were "about to get hosed."

Many Republicans relished the spot Schumer was in — torn between liberals positioning for a 2020 presidential race and centrists facing reelection in 2018 in conservative states — and wanted to keep him under pressure.

Over cheeseburgers in the private dining room just off the Oval Office, Trump and Schumer discussed a comprehensive deal that would include an immigration component and keep the government open, along with disaster relief and budget caps. Schumer signaled he would be open to considering funding for Trump's border wall and providing more defense spending, but he wanted the president to agree to a five-day measure to keep the government open to give both sides time to negotiate something longer term. 

At one point, Schumer asked Trump to tweet in favor of a short-term bill to pressure others, officials said. The top Senate Democrat left the meeting buoyed, telling others that Trump seemed willing to strike a deal.

But as the day wore on, McConnell urged Kelly to not give in. Worried White House aides began making calls to their counterparts on the Hill, assuring them that Trump wouldn't "give away the store," in the words of one top Republican aide. The president summoned Meadows and Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho), another member of the Freedom Caucus, to the Oval Office for a long meeting, even as aides to Trump and Schumer discussed possible deals in writing.

Trump called Schumer a few hours later and said he understood there was a deal for a three-week measure to fund the government — the first that Schumer had heard of any such deal, according to one person familiar with the issue. At another point, Kelly called Schumer, telling the Democrat that his immigration proposal was too liberal and would not work for the administration. 

Schumer wondered aloud to his members about what, exactly, had changed. 

"What happened to the President Trump who asked us to come up with a deal and promised that he would take heat for it?" Schumer asked on the Senate floor shortly after the government shutdown had begun at midnight. "What happened to that president? He backed off at the first sign of pressure."

But early Saturday morning, there was no Trump to be found. He was cloistered at the White House away from public view. Another promising deal — so tantalizingly close — had somehow slipped away.

Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.