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Trump backs off national emergency to build border wall as shutdown becomes longest ever

President Trump on Jan. 11 said he "could" declare border security a national emergency, but he urged Congress to reach a deal to fund the border wall instead. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump cast fresh doubt Friday on whether he would declare a national emergency to build a wall along the southern border, leaving lawmakers waiting for the president’s next move as the government shutdown became the longest in U.S. history.

“What we’re not looking to do right now is national emergency,” Trump said Friday afternoon, surrounded by law enforcement officials at a White House roundtable. “I’m not going to do it so fast.”

Trump reasserted his right to build border walls via an emergency declaration, a move that would bypass a deadlocked Congress in which Democrats have blocked any new wall money. But he said he wanted to give lawmakers more time to act and did not offer a timetable for a decision.

The comments marked a shift from earlier Friday when Trump appeared on the brink of declaring a national emergency. The president has said repeatedly in recent days that he might do so, and his administration had asked agencies to begin preparations.

Furloughed federal employees and supporters protested the ongoing government shutdown, urging President Trump and Congress to open the government. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post, Photo: Michael Williamson/The Washington Post)

Lawmakers from both parties had speculated that a national-emergency declaration could clear the way for an end to the shutdown that, at 22 days long Saturday, became the lengthiest the nation has ever endured.

For furloughed workers, the first missed paychecks ratchet up anxiety

Before the shutdown and since, Trump has floated numerous strategies and potential solutions, only to reverse himself within days, hours or minutes — making it unclear whether his stance Friday would hold or for how long.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Jan. 11, "One person is responsible for shutting down government: Donald Trump." (Video: C-Span)

But for now, Trump’s apparent retreat on the emergency declaration leaves the impasse in place, with no obvious way to resolve it and no real efforts underway to do so.

The Senate adjourned for the weekend on Thursday and House lawmakers left town Friday, with no new negotiations scheduled.

Large parts of the federal government have been without funding since Dec. 22, and the partial shutdown’s effects have multiplied as the lapse has dragged on. Friday marked the first missed paycheck for many of the approximately 800,000 federal employees who are furloughed or working without compensation. And the White House has scrambled to find ways to keep the partially shuttered government functioning, a rapidly shifting and often improvised process that has seen the administration reverse past precedent and enter into legally murky territory.

Trump’s seeming ambivalence over an emergency declaration mirrors disagreement within his own party.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said he met with Trump on Friday and emerged from the meeting with a clear directive for the president.

“Mr. President, declare a national emergency now,” Graham said in a statement. “Build a wall now.”

But Trump has gotten sharp pushback from the idea, even from Republicans.

“I think the president should not do it,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) told reporters Friday. “I think as a member of Congress I ought to be very selfish about the constitutional powers that we have to appropriate money. I think it might be a bad precedent.”

Other prominent Republicans on Friday expressed alarm that Trump might try to divert funds from disaster-recovery projects in places such as Texas and use it to build the border wall. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said he vigorously opposed using any of the money that had been appropriated by Congress to clean up damage caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

“We worked very hard to make sure that the victims of Hurricane Harvey, their concerns are addressed and Texas is able to rebuild. And I think we are all together on that,” Cornyn said.

Trump’s lawyers have also privately warned the president he could be on shaky footing with an emergency declaration, according to people familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private White House communications.

With a White House decision in flux, Congress made no progress toward a deal.

The Democratic-led House held its final votes of the week Friday, including on a measure to ensure that federal workers who are furloughed or working without compensation receive back pay once the government reopens. The bill, which passed the Senate on Thursday, now goes to Trump for his signature. But it would do nothing to direct immediate help to the 800,000 federal employees who are going unpaid, and the thousands of federal contractors who have been impacted by the shutdown may never recoup their losses.

The House also passed another bill that would reopen more shuttered government departments — but it had already been declared dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled Senate because of a veto threat from Trump.

Trump administration lays groundwork to declare national emergency to build wall

Absent meaningful negotiations, Trump and top Democrats have traded increasingly acerbic public criticisms.

After an event to formally sign off on the legislation to ensure back pay to furloughed federal workers, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was asked about Trump’s comments suggesting an emergency declaration may not be imminent after all. “Let’s give him time to think it through,” Pelosi said. “Oh, think? Did I say ‘think’? Let’s see what happens next.”

Pelosi has said that Democrats do not feel any political pressure to give in to Trump’s wall demands, saying instead that supporters were urging the party to hold the line.

“I’m a mother of five, grandmother of nine — I know a temper tantrum when I see one,” she said.

The jab echoed criticisms from Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), including his contention that Trump had a “tantrum” when he abruptly walked out of a White House negotiation Wednesday and dismissed it as a “total waste of time.”

At his event Friday, Trump rebuffed Pelosi’s repeated claims that a wall is “immoral,” saying, “What’s immoral is what’s going on” at the border, where Trump has focused on illegal drugs and criminals entering the United States.

Trump said that as long as the wall is built, Democrats could call it anything they want, suggesting they dub it “peaches.”

“The Democrats have to help us. . . . It will take us 15 minutes . . . and then we will get onto much bigger immigration reform,” said Trump, who claimed repeatedly throughout his presidential campaign that the wall would be paid for by Mexico, an assertion he still periodically makes, though without a clear explanation of how that would happen.

House Republicans accused Democrats of going through the motions Friday by passing the latest of four bills to reopen parts of the government unrelated to border security. The bill taken up Friday would reopen the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service and several other agencies.

The bill passed 240 to 179, with 10 Republicans joining all Democrats in the chamber supporting it.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) called the exercise “a charade” because Senate leaders had already indicated they did not plan to vote on the bill and Trump has said he would not sign it.

“If anybody thinks this is accomplishing anything, it’s not,” Cole said.

“We’ve wasted the week because our friends can’t sit down and split the difference,” he added. “I don’t think anyone looks particularly good in this. . . . This will end another sad week in this chamber.”

The bill to ensure workers receive back pay passed 411 to 7. All those who opposed it were Republicans.

Amid the stalemate, the White House has been laying the groundwork for a declaration of a national emergency to build Trump’s border wall, eyeing various pots of unused money, including funds in the Army Corps of Engineers budget that had been directed toward flood-control projects in areas affected by recent natural disasters.

Democrats had condemned the approach, although it is no longer clear whether the administration will seek it.

Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner, Democrats from Virginia, both objected to the use of military funding for the wall while speaking with reporters Friday after a meeting in Alexandria with furloughed workers.

Kaine, who sits on the Armed Services Committee and is the only U.S. senator with a child on active duty, said military construction dollars are used for things such as removing lead from the water supply in troops’ housing and hardening overseas bases to better resist a terrorist attack.

“Let’s face it,” Warner said. “This is an attempt to basically go around the law, to go around the rules. That’s why you even see pushback from some in his own party.”

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló also strongly objected to the idea of diverting money intended for hurricane mitigation.

Mike DeBonis, Paul Kane and Jenna Portnoy contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) was referring to comments from Graham labeling Trump’s call for a border wall as a “metaphor.” In this case, Hoyer was referring to comments from Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).

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