Of all the Republican arguments related to the shutdown, my personal favorite is the talking point that says Donald Trump deserves enormous credit for spending time in the White House. This came up briefly during the president’s latest interview with Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro over the weekend.
PIRRO: You’re sitting there waiting for a deal, the Democrats are not sitting with you. If this isn’t an emergency, I don’t know what is.
TRUMP: Well, I haven’t actually left the White House in months…. I’ve been here virtually every night, I guess every night other than one day I flew to Iraq and then to Germany to see our troops.
That’s not even close to being true. During the seven days preceding the interview, Trump visited Camp David, Capitol Hill, and McAllen, Texas. He’ll be in New Orleans today (though he told the public he’d be in Tennessee.) In the weeks leading up to his shutdown, the president also traveled to Philadelphia, Kansas City, Mississippi, and Argentina.
But while I don’t much care about Trump’s travels, I do care about the underlying point he wants the public to believe: it’s impressive, the argument goes, just how much time the president has been willing to spend inside the White House during the government shutdown.
Trump has stressed this point during cabinet meetings, during multiple television interviews, and in a series of tweets. Some of his prominent cheerleaders, including acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney have parroted the same line.
The Associated Press reported this morning that the president “has expressed bafflement that he is not getting more credit for largely staying put during the shutdown.”
Perhaps I can help explain the dynamic that has left Trump so confused.
On Jan. 2, the Republican told his cabinet why he didn’t travel over the holidays: “I felt I should be here just in case people wanted to come to negotiate the border security.”
I get the sense Trump didn’t appreciate how amusing this was. As we discussed two weeks ago, the president’s plan to resolve the shutdown over the holidays 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.”
What Trump doesn’t realize is what matters here: actual work in the White House is more important and more impressive than maintaining a literal, physical presence in the White House.
And that’s where the president is falling far short. Being inside the building is a nice first step, but doing something of value from the White House is far more important. He could host constructive negotiations; he could present credible offers; he could work the phones, gauging members’ interest is competing solutions.
Instead, Trump spends a great deal time telling everyone where he’s located, as if that’s necessarily worthy of praise. It’s not.
During his interview with Pirro on Saturday night, Trump clarified his motivation for spending so much time in the White House: “I like the symbol of me being here.”
And while the president is free to like whatever he pleases, his use of the word “symbol” is telling. Trump is placing a high totemic value on a gesture with no practical meaning.
If the Republican really is “baffled” that he’s not getting more credit, he really ought to try doing some real work on the issue. Praise may soon follow.