The US president’s initial dealings with a divided Congress to end a partial government shutdown were typically Trump: double down on your demand, embarrass your own aides and blame the Democrats, writes Michael Knigge.
Experience a strange sense of deja vu after witnessing President Donald Trump’s strategy to end the partial government shutdown in his first encounter with a divided Congress? Don’t worry, it isn’t a laggard effect of those New Year’s Eve drinks. It is just Trump being Trump.
To kick off inaugural talks with a divided Congress featuring a resurgent Democratic Party, self-proclaimed master negotiator Trump on Wednesday went back to his tried and tested playbook.
In a Cabinet meeting — flanked by an acting defense secretary and an acting interior secretary — he doubled down on his long-standing demand for a “big, beautiful wall.” He then embarrassed Vice President Mike Pence when he insisted that he would not accept anything less than $5.6 billion (€4.9 billion) in funding for the wall, even though Pence — dispatched by the White House to talk to the Democrats just days ago — had told them Trump would sign a bill that included half of that amount. Finally, Trump wrapped up by faulting Democrats for the shutdown.
Stark red line
Trump drawing such a stark red line in the sand rendered the White House’s previously scheduled first meeting to seek a solution to the impasse with the new Congressional leadership useless. And so it was little surprise that the meeting ended without any clear progress and the shutdown will continue.
Trump’s “my way or the highway” style of negotiations has not worked well in a Congress controlled by his own Republican Party. It will work even less in a Congress in which the Democrats control the House of Representatives. But Trump is unencumbered by the thought process of what is actually achievable and in the best interest of the country.
Instead, his main benchmark for political decision-making is how he thinks his stances resonate with his base of supporters. That explains Trump’s sudden reversal late last year when he refused to back a bipartisan spending package that Congress had passed with the expectation he would sign it. Conservative pundits lambasted the deal, and Trump quickly caved.
Trump’s rationale to do everything he believes will please his base also explains why he would double down on a demand he is extremely unlikely to be able to achieve. The strengthened Democrats have no incentive to give Trump $5 billion to fulfill his signature campaign promise. After all, opposition to Trump’s wall was a key electoral driver for the new class of progressive Democrats in Congress, which includes many members that hail from immigrant families themselves.
Despite all the bragging, threatening and blaming, the president will ultimately be forced to blink and climb down from his unachievable demand to end the partial government shutdown he owns. When that will happen is anyone’s guess. But sometimes all it takes to trigger presidential action is a Fox News segment or a call by the leader of Turkey.