House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Vice President Mike Pence, President Donald Trump, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., argue during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018, in Washington.
Evan Vucci/AP Photo

As his shutdown continues, Trump flunks the basics of negotiating

About halfway through Donald Trump’s odd cabinet meeting at the White House yesterday, Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker delivered some brief, gushing remarks about his deep admiration for his boss.

“Sir, Mr. President,” Whitaker said, “I will start by highlighting the fact that you stayed in Washington, D.C. over the holidays, giving up Christmas with your family, New Year’s with your family, trying to bring an end to this shutdown and security to our southern border, while members of Congress, some members of Congress went on vacation and ignored the problem.”

I’m sure Trump enjoyed the genuflecting rhetoric, but the president didn’t spend late December “trying to bring an end to this shutdown.” Rather, he spent the holidays tweeting and watching television. Trump could’ve held negotiations, called Congress to return to session, or worked the phones with lawmakers, trying to work out a deal, but he didn’t do any of these things. In fact, there’s no evidence of him doing any meaningful work on the issue at all.

But Whitaker’s rhetoric seemed to echo the president’s own perspective nicely. Trump told his cabinet:

“I was in the White House all by myself for six, seven days, it was very lonely. My family was down in Florida. They were all, I said, ‘Stay there and enjoy yourself.’

“But I felt I should be here just in case people wanted to come to negotiate the border security.”

Later during the meeting, he added, “I was hoping that maybe somebody would come back and negotiate, but they didn’t do that and that’s okay.”

I don’t think the president fully realized how remarkable these comments were. To hear Trump tell it, his plan to resolve the shutdown was to sit around for days, waiting to see if someone stopped by to negotiate with him.

In this version of events, the Republican apparently thought it was a genuine possibility that members of Congress might knock on the White House door and say, “We were in the neighborhood and thought we’d drop in for a chat about ending the government shutdown.”

It’s obviously pitiful, but the problem runs deeper than that. What Trump has demonstrated isn’t just that he doesn’t know how to negotiate an end to his own shutdown, it’s also that he doesn’t know how to negotiate at all.

Nearly two weeks into the shutdown, Trump hasn’t tried to strike a deal. He’s held one meeting with lawmakers – long after the shutdown began – which doesn’t appear to have gone especially well. He’s rejected compromise offers extended by members of his own team. The president doesn’t appear to have any kind of plan, except to wait for Congress to give him what he wants, which obviously isn’t going to happen.

Nearly eight years ago, when congressional Republicans were poised to shut down the government, Trump sat down with NBC’s Meredith Vieira and focused his attention on one man: Barack Obama.

“If there is a shutdown I think it would be a tremendously negative mark on the president of the United States,” the Republican said. “He’s the one that has to get people together.”

Trump added, “I’m a deal man. I’ve made hundreds and hundreds of deals and transactions. [Obama] never did deals before. How can you expect a man that’s not a deal man that never did a deal, other than frankly becoming president of the United States, he never did a deal, how’s he going to corral all these people to get them to do a deal?”

Asked how he would prevent a shutdown, Trump boasted, “I would get everybody together and we’d have a budget and it would get done.” Reminded that the relevant officials had already gotten together, he added, “[T]hey don’t have the right leader. You don’t have the right leader.”

Eight years later, Trump is in the midst of his third government shutdown. He’s managed to “corral” no one.

Evidently, by his reasoning, we “don’t have the right leader.”