President Trump, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer berated each other on camera Tuesday over Trump’s border wall, an Oval Office spectacle that underscored the distance between the two sides as they confront a fast-approaching deadline for a partial government shutdown.
The stunning public spat, during which Schumer accused the president of throwing a “temper tantrum,” ended with Trump declaring he’d be proud to shut down the government to get the money he wants for his long-promised U.S.-Mexico border wall. If the president follows through on the threat, about 25 percent of the federal government would begin to run out of money on Dec. 21, putting hundreds of thousands of federal workers at risk of getting furloughed without pay just before Christmas.
The two sides remain billions apart on border security — the president is demanding $5 billion for a wall, and Democrats will offer no more than $1.3 billion for fencing — and Tuesday’s talks brought them no closer to a resolution. The three leaders pointed fingers, raised their voices and interrupted one another repeatedly as they fought over policy and politics, laying bare their differences for all to see.
Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Schumer (D-N.Y.) had not expected the session to be televised and repeatedly asked Trump to take the discussions off-camera. But the president allowed the acrimonious encounter to continue for nearly 20 minutes before kicking the media out of the Oval Office.
As the argument dragged on, Schumer lectured Trump that “Elections have consequences, Mr. President.”
Trump claimed that, because she is working to nail down the votes to become speaker, “Nancy’s in a situation where it’s not easy for her to talk right now.”
Pelosi retorted: “Please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats, who just won a big victory.”
It was the first meeting of the three leaders in more than a year, and if it offered a taste of politics in Washington next year when Democrats control the House, the capital is in for a rough ride.
And while Trump has dangled shutdown threats in the past over the wall, Democrats’ upcoming House takeover has given both sides incentives to dig in, raising the prospects of an extended shutdown.
Republicans are about to lose their grip on full control of Washington and know this is their last chance to deliver on Trump’s border wall, a presidential promise many GOP members echoed in their own campaigns.
GOP congressional leaders had urged Trump to put off a shutdown fight over the wall until after the midterm elections for fear of losing more seats. The midterms over, the president appears to want that fight even though few congressional Republicans have any desire for a shutdown.
Democrats feel emboldened by their success in the midterm elections and are in no mood to give in to Trump’s demands, especially with Pelosi and Schumer facing pressure from liberals in their caucus not to back down. Trump long promised that Mexico would pay for the wall but is now demanding U.S. taxpayers foot the bill, a reversal that has hardened Democrats’ resolve against a project Pelosi has termed “immoral.”
During the private portion of the meeting, Pelosi pressed Trump on his claim that Mexico would pay for the wall, and he told her that the money would come from the newly renegotiated North American trade deal. It wasn’t clear how this would work, and Pelosi dismissed the idea, according to an account she later gave fellow Democrats.
The $1.3 billion proposed by Democrats would extend current funding levels for border fencing contained in a spending bill for the Homeland Security Department — a level that would give Trump no new money for work on a wall.
Absent an agreement by the end of next week, funding will run out for the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies, including the Justice, Interior and Agriculture departments. Those agencies, making up about 25 percent of the federal government, are operating on a short-term spending bill Congress passed last week to move the shutdown deadline. The rest of the federal government, including the Pentagon and the Department of Health and Human Services, has already been funded through the 2019 budget year.
Any shutdown would therefore be limited in scope, but there are still numerous federal workers employed by agencies large and small that are at risk of shutting down everything except operations deemed critical. The impact on the federal workforce and the public would depend on how long the shutdown lasted.
Pelosi and Schumer both implored Trump to steer clear of a shutdown.
“I think the American people recognize that we must keep government open, that a shutdown is not worth anything, and that you should not have a Trump shutdown,” Pelosi said, to which Trump replied, “Did you say ‘Trump’?”
Trump initially said he did not want a shutdown either but in the end announced he was willing to close the government.
“I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck,” Trump declared. “Because the people of this country don’t want criminals and people that have lots of problems and drugs pouring into this country. So I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I won’t blame you for it.”
“We believe you shouldn’t shut it down,” Schumer repeated.
During the private part of the meeting, Pelosi told reporters later, she warned Trump that if he doesn’t accept the deal Democrats have offered him, the House will go ahead and pass it next year once under Democratic control.
“We’re telling him we’ll keep government open with the proposal that Mr. Schumer suggested. Why doesn’t he just think about it? In fact, I asked him to pray over it,” Pelosi said.
Pelosi told Trump the House would not even be able to pass his $5 billion wall bill this session, with Republicans in control. Trump insisted that the House could but it would be pointless because it would not pass the Senate.
“Okay, then do it,” Pelosi challenged the president.
“Nancy, I’d have it passed in two seconds,” Trump said. House GOP leadership aides agree that a $5 billion wall bill could pass the House, and it may come up for a vote by the end of next week.
Trump continued: “Nancy, I need 10 votes from Chuck,” referring to Senate math requiring 60 votes to advance spending bills, necessitating support from Democrats.
Schumer sought to interject and told Trump: “We have solutions that will pass the House and Senate right now and will not shut down the government, and that’s what we’re urging you to do. Not threaten to shut down the government because you can’t get your way.”
Trump replied: “You don’t want to shut down the government because the last time you shut it down, you got killed,” referring to a brief shutdown this year that Democrats provoked over immigration.
The leaders also argued about the meaning of the midterm election results. As Pelosi and Schumer pointed to Democrats’ resounding win in the House, Trump said: “Excuse me, did we win the Senate? We won the Senate.”
“When the president brags that he won North Dakota and Indiana, he’s in real trouble,” Schumer remarked in response.
Vice President Pence sat near Trump in an armchair the entire televised portion of the meeting without saying anything. Later, in a lunch with GOP senators, Pence referred jokingly to what had transpired, remarking that the Trump the public sees at rallies is just like the one who negotiates in Washington.
The private part of the meeting did not produce immediate results, either, although Pelosi told reporters at the Capitol later that “I think we’re actually in a pretty good place” and that Trump will weigh the deal the Democrats offered.
After Pelosi and Schumer exited the White House, Schumer told reporters: “If he sticks to his position for a $5 billion wall, he will get no wall, and he will get a shutdown. The bottom line is very, very simple.”
Even after two turbulent years under Trump, the Oval Office throwdown had some senators shaking their heads.
“I don’t think it’s something to be proud of, I think it’s something to be resolved about. I’m ready to do this. Listen, enough is enough,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said Trump felt compelled to keep the cameras in the room because he is frustrated with media coverage of his administration and wants to showcase his ability to govern and confront Democrats to a large audience.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made clear after the meeting that he opposes having a shutdown, saying that the public opposes government shutdowns no matter who starts them. “I understand it was a rather spirited meeting we all watched, but I’d still like to see a smooth ending here, and I haven’t given up hope that that’s what we’ll have,” he told reporters.
“The president feels that he never gets a fair shake from journalists generally, and he’s going to do everything he can to get his message out,” Grassley said.
But Grassley, a veteran of the Senate, said the televised clash told him little about the state of the talks over the budget and border security: “It hasn’t solved one thing in terms of compromise. It shows people he’s attentive and intent on not letting people down . . . the people who are fearful of a caravan invasion.”
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, held out hope that the Oval Office clash might have cleared the air to allow serious talks to begin.
“You see it all the time with objections that are raised, and then people come together and get it done,” Tester said. “I think it was, although a bit uncomfortable to watch, I think it was fine.”
Trump had begun the day Tuesday by tweeting threats that if Democrats do not provide enough votes to build the wall, “the Military will build the remaining sections.” He did not elaborate on how that would be funded.
By the end of the day, Pelosi was crowing over her performance in the meeting, telling fellow Democrats privately that getting Trump to own a potential shutdown was an accomplishment, according to an aide in the room who spoke on the condition of anonymity to relate a private conversation.
Pelosi gave this version of events, according to the aide: “The press is all there! Chuck is really shouting out. I was trying to be the mom. I can’t explain it to you. It was so wild. It goes to show you: You get into a tinkle contest with a skunk, you get tinkle all over you.”
Mike DeBonis, Seung Min Kim, Robert Costa, Sean Sullivan, Damian Paletta, Paul Kane and David Nakamura contributed to this report.