Before Donald Trump’s presidency, the federal government had never shut down when one party controlled the White House, Senate, and House. In 2018, with Republicans controlling all the levers of federal power, the government has shut down three times, including the current partial shutdown, which is now in its fifth day.
If the president’s comments yesterday were any indication, a resolution is getting further away.
President Donald Trump told reporters after a Christmas Day phone call with troops that he won’t reopen the government until he gets the $5 billion in funding for his border wall.
As the government shutdown entered its fourth day and expected to stretch at least well into the week, the president said the U.S. must have “a wall, a fence, whatever they’d like to call it.”
As part of the same Oval Office comments, Trump went on to complain about former FBI Director James Comey – it’s not clear why – while also pretending he’s approved federal contracts, which do not appear to exist, on border-wall construction.
Perhaps tipping his hand a bit too much, the Republican added that he wants to have a wall in place “by election time,” apparently referring to 2020, reinforcing the obvious impression that Trump is preoccupied with political considerations, not substantive goals.
The message culminated with the president sharing a holiday message for the ages: “It’s a disgrace, what’s happening in our country. But other than that, I wish everybody a very Merry Christmas.”
As unintentionally amusing as this was, the lingering questions about the shutdown remain: how and when will this latest fiasco end?
To hear acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney tell it, a compromise is possible. On Sunday, he told Fox News, in reference to negotiations over border-security spending, “I will tell you this, [Democrats are at] $1.3 [billion]. We are at $5 billion a couple of days ago. And the counteroffer that we give them yesterday was between those two numbers. We moved off of the $5 [billion] and we hope they move up from their $1.3 [billion].”
It’s tempting to see this as encouraging: if the White House and congressional Democrats are already close, it shouldn’t be difficult to work out an agreement somewhere in the middle.
The truth isn’t nearly that straightforward. For one thing, the president himself doesn’t appear to be backing off his $5 billion demand. For another, Democrats are prepared to accept some modest increase in measures for border security, but the investments they have in mind are not for Trump’s proposed wall.
In other words, the point isn’t to simply reach a compromise between $1.3 billion and $5 billion. Rather, it’s a question of how that money will be spent: Trump says he’ll accept nothing less than a massive physical barrier between the United States and Mexico, and that’s not a ransom Democrats are prepared to pay.
During recent shutdowns, there’s often a scramble to assign blame, though in this shutdown, that debate was over before it started: the president already welcomed responsibility for his own gambit. The current challenge is figuring out what it’ll take to convince Trump to choose a more responsible course.
And since the president doesn’t appear to have any kind of strategy whatsoever, that’s a challenge for which there is no clear answer. He’s not only backed himself into a corner, making a demand that will not be met, Trump is also confronting the simple fact that he’s running out of calendar. As weak as his position is now, seven days from tomorrow, there will be a Democratic majority in the House, at which point the president’s prospects will be quite a bit worse.
Trump is going to have to cave. He can do it now or he can do it later, though the longer he drags this out, the more painful it’ll be for the president when he accepts an inevitable defeat.
Postscript: On Saturday morning, on this shutdown’s first day, Trump announced via Twitter that he was “working hard” in the White House and “negotiating with the Democrats.” He apparently made this up: the president convened a White House lunch that afternoon, but according to Roll Call, no Democrats were invited.