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‘Off the rails’: Inside Trump’s attempt to claim victory in his border wall defeat

President Trump declared a national emergency to build a border wall on Feb. 15. Here's what you missed. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post, Photo: Oliver Contreras/The Washington Post)

After three weeks of pained negotiations to keep the federal government open, President Trump almost blew the whole thing up again on Thursday.

Headed for another defeat on his signature promise to make Mexico pay for a southern border wall, the president was frustrated after a briefing by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and others on details of the final deal to avoid a shutdown, according to officials involved in the discussions. Trump threatened not to sign the legislation, the officials said, putting the government on the brink of another damaging shutdown.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was on the phone with Trump at least three times during the course of the nerve-racking day, pressing him to stay the course and asserting that Democrats had actually lost the spending fight, two people familiar with the conversations said.

By midafternoon, however, Trump was back on board — agreeing to sign the legislation with the caveat that he would also declare a national emergency in an attempt to use existing government funds to pay for wall construction. It was an option that Republican leaders had urged him to avoid but eventually accepted as necessary to escape the corner in which Trump — and his party — were trapped. McConnell promised Trump he would encourage others to support the emergency in a bid to get the president to sign, according to people familiar with the conversations.

Trump refused to sign the bill Thursday until the White House Counsel’s Office convinced him it would not preclude him from declaring a national emergency, two senior administration officials said. The president is expected to declare the emergency and sign the bill Friday morning, a senior White House official said.

Though White House officials insisted Thursday that Trump was acting in a defiant and assertive way, few Republicans, including the president’s closest allies, were pleased with the ending: $1.375 billion for fencing and other expenditures, plus an emergency gambit that many conservatives view as an executive overreach.

Each time President Trump turned down money for his wall, he ended up with less money than he started with. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Yet for Trump, the negotiations were never really about figuring out how to win. They were about figuring out how to lose — and how to cast his ultimate defeat as victory instead.

“Zero chance you could spin this as a win for Republicans,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), head of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said earlier in the week. He called the bipartisan deal “a total capitulation” and added, “Bluntly, it was a waste of three weeks.”

This account of Congress’s latest border spending negotiations and Trump’s erratic decision-making is based on interviews with more than two dozen administration officials, lawmakers and their aides, and other people involved in the talks, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

“I think the president’s view was that he could get us to fold. He could talk about his emergency; he could do all kinds of things,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Thursday in an interview with The Washington Post. “Once he learned he couldn’t bully us into doing what he wanted, once he learned that the public was on our side, he realized he should give up.”

'He can make that case again'

The agreement this week — coming in the wake of a 35-day shutdown spurred by Trump’s quest to obtain border wall money — was brokered by a 17-member bipartisan panel convened in late January after Trump agreed to reopen the government until Friday. It was led by senior appropriators, such as 84-year-old Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Over the past three weeks, Shelby and McConnell were often forced not only to navigate Democrats’ demands, but also to keep a reluctant and grousing president from rebelling. McConnell spoke to Trump many times this week, one adviser said, seeking to ensure the chief executive would sign the bill.

Meanwhile, as lawmakers met at the Capitol and finalized details of the spending agreement in recent weeks, Trump and his aides frantically scrambled to get barriers built by any means and to convince his political supporters that he was fulfilling his campaign promise. A national emergency declaration was seen as likely because their expectations for the bipartisan group were so low.

The president huddled with contractors to review designs; his budget gurus identified pots of money that might be tapped by executive fiat for wall construction; his lawyers reviewed the U.S. Code and drafted orders; and his political hands debuted a new slogan designed to convey that nonexistent action was already under­way: “Finish the wall.”

All along, however, Trump and top aides privately acknowledged they would probably never secure the more than $5 billion he had sought from a divided Congress. And the White House Counsel’s Office expressed concerns that the emergency declaration would be legally dicey.

Several top White House officials said they did not mind their distance from the process this time around, in contrast to the last shutdown, when Oval Office sit-downs were frequent. They said they were hoping to keep whatever emerged from Congress as a congressional product and something the president could later dismiss as inadequate as he seeks to rally his core voters for his 2020 reelection campaign, as he did Monday at a rally in El Paso.

“There’s power in that,” said Marc Short, Trump’s former White House legislative affairs director. “It’s underreported how being able to run against D.C. and Congress as an outsider helped him in 2016, and he can make that case again.”

Inside the West Wing, Trump’s advisers argued to him that his call for a border wall was more popular because of his showdown with Congress and that his approval ratings had improved slightly. Indeed, he said at Monday night’s rally that the shutdown was “a very important thing we did” because it raised public awareness of “what the hell is happening with the border.”

'Everyone thinks this is terrible'

Time and again, Democrats demonstrated during the negotiations that they — not Trump — had the leverage. As rattled Republicans plodded forward, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and fellow Democrats were brimming with confidence.

Gathered on Jan. 29 to prepare for initial talks with Republicans, Pelosi was so at ease about her party’s position that she passed out ice cream — dark chocolate Dove bars, one of her favorites — as she reminded her colleagues to hold the line against the president’s demand for border wall funding.

Two weeks later, with funding levels for Trump’s border structure already well below the president’s request, House Democratic negotiators demanded that Republicans put a new cap on beds for undocumented immigrants detained from the interior of the United States, as opposed to the border, limiting them to 16,500 per day.

The concept was the brainchild of the office of Rep. Lucille ­Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), a longtime critic of detention policies who holds an influential role as the Democrat overseeing Homeland Security funding. The sudden make-or-break demand nearly blew up negotiations last weekend as Shelby rejected the idea outright and turned his ire on Democrats.

Senate Republicans the next day took to Sunday morning news shows to decry the latest skirmish as a Democratic attempt to allow criminals into the country, which Democrats vehemently disputed. Senate Democratic negotiators became uneasy with the request and asked their House colleagues to back off, lest the party be blamed for another government shutdown, according to two people close to the Democratic lawmakers — and they ultimately did. Democrats acknowledged privately that the provision was politically difficult to defend.

But House Democratic conferees decided to push the envelope again, testing the limits of what they saw as an uncertain GOP. Just before a Monday night meeting with the top four negotiators, Democrats on both sides of the Capitol concluded they would give Trump and Republicans $1.45 billion for non-wall border funding in the final negotiation to clinch a deal, two aides said.

Then, an emboldened House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), a Pelosi confidante, took a page from her friend’s playbook of driving a tough bargain: She walked into the room and surprised her Senate counterparts by lowering the offer to $1.375 billion.

Shelby accepted without a fight.

Privately, Trump complained vociferously about the final deal and said he felt Republican negotiators had failed him and that he might not sign it, according to one person who spoke to the president. “Everyone thinks this is terrible,” Trump told this person on Tuesday, echoing the criticism from some of his supporters in conservative media, including Fox News host Sean Hannity.

But Trump did not have the stomach for another shutdown and told aides it had generated nonstop negative coverage. Polls showed most Americans blamed him for the shutdown in December and January, the longest in the nation’s history. And his advisers counseled him against a second shutdown, arguing that he had options to fund barrier projects without Congress. Even acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, once an advocate of budget brinkmanship, argued against a shutdown this time.

On Capitol Hill, there was no appetite, either, particularly among Republicans who were rattled by the GOP’s poor showing in suburban and swing areas last year. “Just not an option, at all,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) said. “We’d state the obvious: The first shutdown was a mistake and we can’t do it again.”

'Don't poke the bear'

By Wednesday, when House Republicans met privately behind closed doors, “few people stood up to complain at the open-mic session,” one House GOP aide said, underscoring the exhaustion among rank-and-file lawmakers.

Still, Trump can be combustible and sometimes acts rashly when he feels cornered, so some Republican senators spent recent days on the phone, soothing him and trying to persuade him to hold his fire. McConnell also asked Trump to withhold judgment until the details of the deal were finalized.

Democrats decided in the final days they needed to be careful with their language, worried they could provoke Trump into another shutdown.

“He doesn’t seem to work on a totally rational basis,” Schumer said in the Post interview. “Little comments throw him off.”

When Shelby called Trump to brief him on the deal, he tried to sell the president on the idea that the $1.375 billion figure was merely a “down payment” on his wall, according to three people briefed on the call. The money will actually pay for just 55 miles of fencing, not a concrete or steel wall of the kind repeatedly promised by Trump.

“Obviously he’s had great success in the private sectors as a real estate developer, hotel operator — that’s dealmaking, you know, on a high level,” Shelby said in an interview Thursday. “Political dealmaking is a little different. I’m sure the president, he’s been there two years now, he’s probably learned that it’s different. We’ll see how the next year or two goes.”

A towering appropriator whose easy charm conceals his legislative savvy, Shelby approached Trump carefully, always framing the talks in cheery terms. When he would spot a White House official at a social event, Shelby would often amble over and tell him or her that he was planning to get a “good deal,” or “don’t worry about anything,” according to two aides briefed on the exchanges.

Tensions and worries lingered until the end, as Trump wavered and some Republican leaders were exasperated.

McConnell immediately went to the floor to announce Trump’s acquiescence to the deal because he was afraid the president would reverse course again and wanted to announce the deal while he had it, according to people familiar with the matter.

In the House, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) — Trump allies — wondered if they could get enough House Republicans to vote for the deal, considering it included less wall money than what Senate appropriators agreed to in December, before the shutdown, according to people close with them.

The pair set out to spin the agreement as a win nonetheless, noting that Pelosi had once vowed Trump would only receive $1 for a border wall. McConnell echoed that point in his repeated phone calls with Trump on Thursday, those familiar with the conversations said.

Democrats, privately, were amused but made a conscious decision not to gloat — concerned that if they celebrated what they considered a victory Thursday they might anger Trump enough to veto the deal.

One conferee summarized the instructions from Democratic leaders: “Don’t poke the bear.”

Philip Rucker, Damian Paletta and Erica Werner contributed to this report.