Between Jan. 2 and Jan. 9, Donald Trump’s hosted three meetings at the White House with lawmakers to discuss his government shutdown. Each failed rather spectacularly. A fourth, quickly thrown together earlier this week, couldn’t even attract Democratic participants.
Yesterday, Trump brought members of the House “Problem Solvers Caucus” – a bipartisan group of relative moderates – to the West Wing for a chat. The president and his team are obviously trying to divide congressional Democrats, excluding party leaders from the discussions, but he nevertheless got seven House Dems to come and hear his pitch.
By some accounts, it was a polite and friendly affair, though some aspects didn’t go especially well.
“He believes what he believes”: That’s what Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Tex.), who met with President Trump at the White House on Wednesday along with a handful of his colleagues from the “Problem Solvers Caucus,” told [the Washington Post] about the president’s “very serious misconceptions of the border.”
“He mentioned, ‘I don’t even know why we have ports of entry. You can just drive down the border and turn left into the U.S.’ … I think he’s convinced himself that that’s what the border is,” Gonzalez told us. “I was listening to him today. He makes a lot of comments that are so untrue. But I believe that he actually believes them.”
That’s certainly important – it’s never been altogether clear if the president actually believes his own nonsense – though it’s not at all reassuring to think Trump, two years into his presidency and nearly four weeks into his shutdown, is still badly confused about the most basic details of the issue he claims to care so deeply about.
The idea behind yesterday’s meeting was itself suspect – Trump should be reaching out to lawmakers in a decision-making authority, and no congressional leaders from either party or either chamber were on hand for yesterday’s chat – but Vicente Gonzalez’s peek behind the curtain reminds me of something important about the president’s capacity.
I’ve seen several compelling analyses in recent weeks about Donald Trump’s failure as a deal-maker. What was billed as the Republican’s greatest strength as a candidate has proven to be one of his most glaring weaknesses as a president.
“There are many ways Trump is bad at being president, but this is one of the most consequential, and most surprising,” Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote last week. “The business of divided governance runs on dealmaking, and Trump himself has become the obstacle to serious, successful negotiations. Of all the overhyped, underpowered products and promises to bear Trump’s name, none has been as much of a scam as his reputation as a dealmaker.”
And why, exactly, is the president so embarrassingly bad at striking deals? Part of the problem is his seemingly uncontrollable dishonesty, creating conditions in which participants simply can’t trust him to keep his word. Similarly, he’s inconsistent, routinely changing his mind on core positions. Indeed, in the case of the shutdown, it was just last month when Trump endorsed a clean spending bill – without funding for a giant border wall – to prevent a shutdown. A day later, after conservative media howled, the president abandoned his own position.
But I think the most serious hurdle for Trump, and the principal reason he’s struggled mightily to negotiate any deals, is that he too often doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Referring back to Rep. Vicente Gonzalez’s (D-Tex.) comments, how are members of Congress supposed to negotiate a substantive resolution with a president who genuinely believes “very serious misconceptions” and “makes a lot of comments that are so untrue”?