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Trump signs massive spending bill, but not before a little drama

President Trump speaks at the White House on Friday after signing a $1.3 trillion spending bill. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump jolted Washington on Friday when he began the day tweeting that he might veto a massive spending bill needed to prevent a government shutdown — and then appearing in front of cameras five hours later to say that he had signed the legislation.

Trump ripped into the $1.3 trillion funding package in remarks at the White House shortly after 1 p.m., calling it a “ridiculous situation,” filled with overspending yet lacking enough money for his border wall or a deal to resolve the future of the young, undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers.” He said he was only signing the bill because it contained a boost for the military. 

“I looked very seriously at the veto,” Trump told reporters. “I was thinking about doing the veto. But because of the incredible gains that we've been able to make for the military, that overrode any of our thinking.” 

Friday’s five hours of confusion showed once again how nothing is certain in Trump’s Washington and any deal is at risk of being blown up by the mercurial president. On Thursday, administration officials and congressional leaders said that the president would sign the bill — even though for days he had privately complained about the package in late-night phone calls and early morning rants — and the White House issued a news release touting its accomplishments.

It also highlighted Trump’s desire to be seen as his own political entity and still an outsider, separate at times from the Republican Party he leads. During his remarks at the White House, Trump sought to distance himself from a bill unpopular with his base but that his aides helped craft and the GOP-led Congress passed. At times he went so far as to portray himself as being almost helpless and having little choice but to accept the spending package. 

“As a matter of national security, I've signed this omnibus budget bill,” he said. “There are a lot of things that I’m unhappy about in this bill. There are a lot of things that we shouldn’t have had in this bill, but we were, in a sense, forced — if we want to build our military — we were forced to have.”

The president’s unhappiness was fueled Friday morning, as it often is, with Trump in the residence watching “Fox and Friends.” For days, he heard that Republicans were getting rolled in the spending negotiations, and that message was now being delivered by his favorite morning show.

“This is a swamp budget, this is a Mitch McConnell special, this is a dysfunctional Senate,” Fox News personality Pete Hegseth vented, referring to the Senate majority leader. “There’s no wall. Ultimately, the Democrats controlled the process in the Senate. That’s why Chuck Schumer was so happy.”

Trump had confided to several advisers that he was tired of watching Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) crow on TV — or hearing that he was being snookered by Democrats. He gets particularly agitated over Schumer’s statements, two of these people said. 

On Friday morning, he also heard from Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who said that he should not sign the spending package. Trump seemed to agree. The president had already talked to a number of other conservatives and friends, including Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the leader of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus. 

None of the reviews coming in from his favorite media outlets, including Fox News and the conservative website Newsmax, about the bill were positive, even with a big uptick in military spending that Trump so prized. The president was told about radio show host Rush Limbaugh’s rant against the bill. 

“The president was really sold a bill of goods here,” said Christopher Ruddy, Newsmax’s chief executive, who speaks frequently to the president. “Conservatives look at this omnibus bill and say, ‘This is not why they elected Donald Trump. This is not a good bill for him to sign.’ ” 

The spending bill is widely expected to be the last major piece of legislation that Congress will pass before the November midterm elections, which increased pressure to jam it full of legislative odds and ends, including provisions on guns and combating invasive carp. The bill funds the federal government through Sept. 30, and provides $700 billion for the military and $591 billion for domestic agencies. 

Conservatives and some of Trump’s top supporters found plenty they did not like about the package. The House and Senate both passed it just more than 24 hours after it was released, drawing complaints that there was little time to review its contents. Overall, critics on the right said that it spent too much money, yet only included a pittance for Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Immigration seemed to frustrate Trump the most. He secured $1.6 billion for some fencing and levees on the border; it comes with strings attached and the amount fell far short of the $25 billion requested for a wall. He was also eager to blame Democrats for the failure to reach a deal to protect dreamers by coming up with an alternative to the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) that he ended last year.

Even Friday morning, Trump asked aides how he could still get more money for the border wall and whether some of the items that Democrats celebrated were in the bill — such as money for what are known as sanctuary cities and Planned Parenthood — were really included in the package, according to people familiar with the discussions who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity.

He was told that it was unlikely he could get more wall funding and that Democrats did secure the items they were touting. He grew angry. So, shortly before 9 a.m., Trump took to Twitter. 

“I am considering a VETO of the Omnibus Spending Bill based on the fact that the 800,000 plus DACA recipients have been totally abandoned by the Democrats (not even mentioned in Bill) and the BORDER WALL, which is desperately needed for our National Defense, is not fully funded,” Trump tweeted. 

Inside the White House, senior officials such as Vice President Pence, legislative director Marc Short and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis were summoned to persuade the president to sign the bill and avoid a shutdown.

Mattis stressed that the Pentagon desperately needed the funding boost — a $66 billion increase over last year’s levels — that the bill would provide. Aides told Trump it would be “historic” funding, a word that he likes to hear.

Short argued that the funding package would give the president money for immigration and infrastructure programs and that the White House had already committed to signing the bill. 

Trump was given a list of all the planes, submarines and other military equipment the bill would fund, a list the president would rattle off later in his hastily organized appearance in the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room.

 House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) made his own pitch, calling the president about 30 minutes after the veto threat. Trump continued to say the bill was terrible, but Ryan again touted benefits for the military. McConnell (R-Ky.) called Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, two White House aides said, to keep tabs on the situation. 

Hill staffers and lawmakers were frustrated, if not surprised.

Last year, Trump also threatened to veto a large spending bill in April on the day he was supposed to sign it, leading Ryan to rush over to the White House. Trump was set off by an episode of “Fox and Friends” and was confused about the legislation, advisers said. 

The details of this spending package should not have been new to the president. Short, Jonathan Slemrod and Kathleen Kraninger — all administration aides — were involved in the negotiations in recent days that went until the wee hours of the morning with congressional appropriators, according to three people familiar with the talks.

At times, they would go outside to call others in the White House to ask for approval on certain parts of the bill. The arguments were sometimes tense and lasted until 3 a.m. 

So members were perplexed when Trump, all of a sudden, seemed to not know what was in the bill Friday and said he might not sign it. 

One senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that Stephen Miller, the White House’s senior policy adviser, and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen were critical of the spending measure because it did not do enough to advance Trump’s priorities on combating illegal immigration. Miller had eventually relented after realizing that there were no good options if the president vetoed the bill, officials said. 

While Trump was not all that concerned about the cost, he kept reminding aides that many legislators, including the Freedom Caucus, hated the spending. 

“The president’s instincts were right,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a member of the caucus. “The bill is terrible. We still wish he would have vetoed it. It is a bill that funds items we said we would not fund while not funding items we promised we would.”

Some lawmakers and White House officials were confident that Trump’s veto tweet was a bluff and that he was just letting off steam. 

Eventually, White House officials said, Trump demanded having a public event, where he could show his political supporters that he didn’t like the bill while attacking Democrats — and labeling it all for the military. 

Before cameras at the White House, Trump vented about the parts of the bill he disliked and called for the power to issue line-item vetoes — something the Supreme Court has deemed unconstitutional — and urged the Senate to junk the legislative filibuster, which has little support among senators.

But this battle was already over. He signed the bill before appearing before reporters.

John Wagner, Mike DeBonis, Erica Werner and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.