The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump two years in: The dealmaker who can’t seem to make a deal

President Trump blasted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Jan. 20, after she refused to accept an immigration deal he spoke about the previous day. (Video: Reuters)

Donald Trump was elected president partly by assuring the American people that “I alone can fix it.”

But precisely two years into his presidency, the government is not simply broken — it is in crisis, and Trump is grappling with the reality that he cannot fix it alone.

Trump’s management of the partial government shutdown — his first foray in divided government — has exposed as never before his shortcomings as a dealmaker. The president has been adamant about securing $5.7 billion in public money to construct his long-promised border wall, but he has not won over congressional Democrats, who call the wall immoral and have refused to negotiate over border security until the government reopens.

The 30-day shutdown — the impacts of which have begun rippling beyond the federal workforce into the everyday lives of millions of Americans — is defining the second half of Trump’s term and has set a foundation for the nascent 2020 presidential campaign.

The shutdown also has accentuated several fundamental traits of Trump’s presidency: his apparent shortage of empathy, in this case for furloughed workers; his difficulty accepting responsibility, this time for a crisis he had said he would be proud to instigate; his tendency for revenge when it comes to one-upping political foes; and his seeming misunderstanding of Democrats’ motivations.

Trump on Saturday made a new offer to end the shutdown, proposing three years of deportation protections for some immigrants, including young people known as “dreamers,” in exchange for border wall funding.

But before Trump even made it to the presidential lectern in the White House’s stately Diplomatic Reception Room to announce what he called a “straightforward, fair, reasonable, and common sense” proposal, Democrats rejected it as a non-starter.

“What the president presented yesterday really is an effort to bring together ideas from both political parties,” Vice President Pence said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “I think it is an act of statesmanship on the president’s part to say, ‘Here is what I’m for. It includes my priorities, it includes priorities that Democrats have advanced for some period of time,’ and we believe it provides a framework for ending this impasse.”

Such an accord has proved elusive, however, in part because Democrats say they have the upper hand politically in opposing Trump’s wall and feel no imperative to give ground.

“What really drove him was ‘Art of the Deal,’ that he could get stuff done in D.C. and deal with the knuckleheads,” said Republican strategist Mike Murphy, a sharp Trump critic, referring to Trump’s book on negotiating. “People saw him as some sort of business wizard. That’s all disintegrating. It’s like McDonald’s not being able to make a hamburger.”

Trump offers 3-year extension of protection for ‘dreamers’ in exchange for $5.7 billion for wall; Democrats call it a ‘non-starter’

Trump has approached the shutdown primarily as a public relations challenge. He has used nearly every tool of his office — including a prime-time Oval Office address as well as a high-profile visit to the U.S.-Mexico line — to convince voters that the situation at the southern border has reached crisis levels and can be solved only by constructing a physical barrier.

Trump’s advisers argue the president has been successful at educating and persuading Americans, even though his efforts have not led to a bipartisan deal. “You can’t turn an aircraft carrier on a dime,” said one White House official who, like some others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.

But the data tell a more troubling story for the president. One month into the shutdown, the longest in U.S. history, a preponderance of public polls show Trump is losing the political fight. For instance, a Jan. 13 Washington Post-ABC News survey found that many more Americans blame him than blame Democrats for the shutdown, 53 percent to 29 percent. And the president’s job approval ratings continue to be decidedly negative.

“Even though he thinks he’s doing a great job for his core, it’s ripping the nation apart,” said one Trump friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I don’t think there is a plan. He’s not listening to anybody because he thinks that if he folds on this, he loses whatever constituency he thinks he has.”

Behind the scenes at the White House, some aides acknowledge the difficulties.

“The president is very much aware he’s losing the public opinion war on this one,” one senior administration official said. “He looks at the numbers.”

Other Trump advisers insist that the president is not driven by political considerations and is focused entirely on protecting the American people and finding a solution to illegal immigration.

Members of Congress discussed ways to break the funding impasse on Jan. 20, the 30th day of a partial government shutdown. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

John McLaughlin, a pollster on Trump’s 2016 campaign, said Trump’s suggestion to temporarily extend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants protections for some people brought to the United States illegally as children, is key to increasing his popularity.

“The White House needs to press that button and more often dangle that out there,” McLaughlin said. “We need to remind the voters every day that the president is willing to compromise and give legal status to DACA recipients in exchange for increased border security, but the Democrats are too intense about trying to defeat Trump right now.”

Some political professionals cautioned against rushing to judgment about the shutdown’s impact on Trump’s reelection, saying that November 2020 is a virtual eternity from now.

“This could all be forgotten in a week if and when we come to an agreement, the government opens and the wall is built,” Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said. “Nobody knows how this is going to turn out until we get a resolution. So it’s a national game of chicken.”

Trump has long seen his stewardship of the economy as his political calling card. Yet the instability in Washington is threatening to wreak havoc, with fresh gyrations in the stock market amid concerns about Trump’s trade war with China and fears of a prolonged shutdown.

Trump’s management of the impasse has also drawn criticism about his competence as an executive. The administration this past month has been playing a game of whack-a-mole, with West Wing aides saying they did no contingency planning for a shutdown this long and have been learning of problems from agencies and press reports in real time. Officials have scrambled to respond as best they can and keep key services operating, but they fear they may soon run out of so-called Band-Aid solutions, and temporary pots of money may run dry in February, one official said.

Inside the West Wing, morale has been low in recent weeks, according to aides. Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, has not sought to impose the same level of discipline as his predecessor, John F. Kelly, so aides flow in and out of the Oval Office, reminiscent of the early months of Trump’s presidency.

Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, is an increasingly powerful figure who has asserted himself, along with Pence and Mulvaney, in negotiations with lawmakers, anticipating a big deal to be had.

Two senior Republican aides said senators are skeptical that Pence speaks for the president, after Trump undercut him early in the shutdown.

Trump has been preoccupied by the political messaging and stagecraft of the shutdown showdown, according to White House aides. He has personally met with outside allies to ask them to go on cable television to defend his position, and he has spent time calling those who have praised him.

The president has also gone days without speaking to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), leaving negotiations effectively at a standstill despite Trump’s latest offer Saturday.

“The shutdown has turned into a test of strength between the president and Washington Democrats, particularly the speaker, and how it ends and when will tell us a lot about whether they can forge a relationship over the next two years,” said Michael Steel, a GOP strategist who has been a top aide to former Republican House speakers John A. Boehner and Paul D. Ryan.

In private conversations with advisers, Trump alternately complains that nobody has presented him a deal to end the shutdown, grouses about Pelosi and Schumer and asks how the fight affects his reelection chances. Aides said they have shown him polling that shows he is losing the shutdown battle and that most Americans do not think the situation at the border is a crisis, as he and his administration have termed it.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) repeatedly has told Trump that he believes Pelosi is trying to embarrass him, two people familiar with the conversations said.

Trump has accused Democrats of being insensitive to the dangers of illegal immigration. “They don’t see crime & drugs, they only see 2020 — which they are not going to win,” he tweeted Sunday. He went on to single out Pelosi for behaving “irrationally” and acting as “a Radical Democrat.”

Pelosi and other Democrats, meanwhile, say Trump is immune to the hardships of federal workers who are going without paychecks.

“I don’t think that he understands the real-life impacts,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D), whose home state of Montana has one of the highest concentrations of federal workers. “Look, the guy was born with a lot of money, and that’s great. I wish I was born with a lot of money, too. I was born with great parents, okay? And so I don’t think he really can relate with people who live paycheck to paycheck. That’s why I don’t think there’s urgency on his part.”