President Trump stayed out of public view this weekend as delicate negotiations continued to fully reopen the federal government, sharing his opinions publicly only in sporadic, tweet-sized bursts.
His closest advisers and allies would like this hide-and-tweet strategy to continue.
Trump — whose natural inclination is to place himself squarely in the action — initially wanted a deal. He told Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) over cheeseburgers Friday that they should keep the government open through Tuesday, while striking a larger agreement that would take care of the nearly 690,000 young undocumented immigrants facing possible deportation and also building a wall, raising defense spending and appropriating federal disaster dollars, according to people familiar with their meeting.
Aides even exchanged documents afterward on what the specifics might look like. "President Trump threw out a number, and I accepted it," Schumer said Sunday.
But over the weekend, senior aides — such as White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, legislative affairs head Marc Short and budget director Mick Mulvaney — and Republican congressional leaders cautioned Trump against negotiating with Schumer, arguing the New York Democrat is in a tough spot and will ultimately have to capitulate. At least some of these people have told Trump that Schumer is facing internal pressure from his own members, seeming to buoy the president, who hates seeming "weak."
When House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) spoke with Trump on Saturday, he told the president that Democrats had taken an "unreasonable" stance and were in an untenable situation, according to a person familiar with the call. Ryan urged the president not to negotiate any sort of deal that includes protections for undocumented immigrants who were brought into the country as children, known as "dreamers," until the government has been reopened. The president seemed to agree, this person said. The dreamers' fate became uncertain after Trump decided last year to end former president Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allowed immigrants brought to the country illegally as children to stay with work permits,
Aides and advisers also reminded Trump of the perils of getting too deeply involved at this point, noting Congress is more unpopular than him and talking about some of the unpleasant experiences he has had negotiating with Capitol Hill. Privately, some of his closest advisers admit the president is an erratic dealmaker who can unexpectedly overturn negotiations like a flimsy coffee table.
After the shutdown began, Trump suppressed his instincts and did not call Schumer, advisers said, and was buoyed by aides doing a full television blitz — a public strategy partially prepared by West Wing officials who were worried that Trump would be inclined to strike a deal quickly if the media coverage turned poor. While the president made a dizzying number of calls to former campaign aides, friends, White House staffers and legislative leaders, he has mainly sought updates. The White House said he has also been in touch with key Cabinet secretaries.
"In these situations, the less you're seen the better, and not just for him, for any president," said John Feehery, a Republican strategist who previously worked for congressional leadership. "You kind of want, by your lack of presence, to highlight this being a case of congressional incompetence, as opposed to presidential incompetence, and how you do that is by carefully managing your appearances. The more he appears in public, the more this becomes a Trump problem."
Whether Trump remains in his behind-the-scenes role is unclear — he is "itching" to be involved and constantly watching TV, according to a senior White House official. One adviser who speaks to Trump frequently said he "always wants a deal."
As Trump has watched the nonstop television coverage of the shutdown, he has bounced from grousing to aides that he will be blamed for the shutdown, to asking aloud if he should try to end it, to saying Republicans are in a better spot than Democrats and citing polls that show as much.
He complained about not going to Florida for the weekend, where the first anniversary of his inauguration was to be feted with a lavish gala, while also telling advisers his administration was doing better on handling the shutdown than Obama's did in 2013, according to people who spoke to him.
Trump was determined to show he was working, posing Saturday for a photo behind his desk, wearing a white "Make America Great Again" golf hat. To the click of cameras, he strode resolutely down the portico and even made a rare venture up to the office of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, where he addressed a coterie of top aides.
The photos were released, in an unusual move, and were lampooned by some social media. Trump's desk was empty.
Few things infuriate Trump more than accusations that he is lazy, and he has grown angry with recent depictions of his administration as chaotic. His poll numbers are historically low for a president finishing his first year, and he has complained to advisers, and on Twitter, that the shutdown could hurt the economy.
Trump has previously said that presidents deserve the blame for a shutdown, particularly President Obama, and that they are a failure of presidential leadership.
The president has also grown intimately involved in trying to shape the media coverage, commenting on TV appearances, watching hours of footage, and remarking to friends how the shutdown is playing. When he came to the press office Saturday, he told members of his team that he appreciated them going on TV and coming into the office on a weekend and that he wanted them out more. He dissected individual appearances, making it clear that he was watching closely, and suggested people for certain shows, aides said.
Negotiators on Capitol Hill appear aware Trump is watching as well.
Schumer seemed to speak to an audience of one Sunday, trying to lure the president back into the crosshairs. The senator has told others his best chance for a deal is talking one-on-one with Trump. That prospect has worried Republican legislative leadership and Trump's own advisers, who fear the president will be snookered into a deal that is damaging to him.
"Only Trump," can end the shutdown, Schumer said on the Senate floor Sunday. "He has a love for the dreamers, let him show it."
Tim O'Brien, a Trump biographer, said the president understands Schumer because the senator is somewhat analogous to former New York mayor Ed Koch, a politician Trump both praised "and beat the heck out of," O'Brien said. "This is how he's been with New York politicians forever."
O'Brien said he expected Trump to do whatever he could to soon end an "embarrassing" episode.
Internally, aides said they remained bullish about how they have handled the shutdown. They contend Schumer overstated the progress made in the meeting with Trump on Friday and that the president committed to nothing specific — although even some of his top aides were unsure exactly what Trump said.
"Sen. Schumer's memory is hazy because his account of Friday's meeting is false," Sanders said in a statement. "And the President's position is clear: we will not negotiate on the status of unlawful immigrants while Sen. Schumer and the Democrats hold the government for millions of Americans and our troops hostage."
Trump, who often surprises his aides with a stray tweet, had stuck to the game plan of laying low and making calls to key officials.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who leads the conservative House Freedom Caucus, praised Trump for being calm and delegating many key roles to his top advisers while staying in touch with lawmakers.
"The president is preparing to battle this one out for the long haul," Meadows said.