If Tuesday’s Oval Office meeting is any indication, it’s going to be a rough two years.
By Michelle Cottle-Ms. Cottle is a member of the editorial board- The New York Times
President Donald Trump makes his point at the White House Tuesday in a meeting with the Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, right, and the House speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi, along with Vice President Mike Pence.CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times
Talk about gripping political theater. President Trump’s televised sit-down with Democratic congressional leaders in the Oval Office on Tuesday was fast-paced, spicy and even occasionally edifying — though perhaps not in the way its participants intended.
Topic A was Mr. Trump’s cherished border wall and, more specifically, whether he really intends to shut down parts of the government next week if Congress doesn’t give him the $5 billion in funding he’s demanding.
Starting out, Mr. Trump tried to keep things “friendly,” by his terms at least: He spouted his usual folderol about the indispensability of a wall; he spun scary fictions about hordes of terrorists, criminals and — in a slightly fresher twist — contagion-carrying migrants swarming the southern border; he mansplained to Nancy Pelosi, the once and future speaker of the House, how the legislative process works; he shrugged off multiple jabs at his habitual dishonesty by Ms. Pelosi and her Senate counterpart, Chuck Schumer; and, as usual, he cheerfully ignored his vice president, Mike Pence, who spent the entirety of the 15-plus-minute confab doing his best impression of a throw pillow.
“See! We get along!” the president enthused after his Democratic guests agreed that border security is important.
But after being gigged by Mr. Schumer about having repeatedly threatened a shutdown, Mr. Trump couldn’t resist going all Tough Guy for the cameras. He sat up extra straight, gave his suit jacket that who’s-your-daddy? snap he so loves, and thrust his chin at the Senate leader:
“You know what? You want to put that on my — I’ll take it!” he challenged. “If we don’t get what we want — one way or the other, whether it’s through you, through a military, through anything you want to call — I will shut down the government, absolutely… And I’ll tell you what, I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck.”
And with that, the president moved to wrap up the discussion, leaving Chuck, Nancy and everyone else to marvel at the weirdness of what had just transpired — and, just as important, what it all means.
Short answer: Whatever happens with the funding standoff, the next two years of divided government promise to be a freak show of finger-pointing and point-scoring and people talking over and past one another with no hope of, or even much interest in, engaging the other side. While entertaining, this also risks taking the level of dysfunction to new depths likely to further erode public faith in government — no small feat considering that the public already holds the government in lower esteem than your average war criminal.
Indeed, if Tuesday’s preview was any indication, Mr. Trump will spend the rest of his term talking smack, patronizing and tweaking congressional Democrats, and playing ever more wildly to his base, even as Democrats express growing frustration about their inability to have a rational conversation with a president who lives — with apologies to Mr. Rogers — in his own Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
Both Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer looked alternately bemused and exasperated by their visit, and both pleaded that the negotiations were best conducted in private. At one point, Mr. Trump scolded Ms. Pelosi: “But it’s not bad, Nancy. It’s called transparency.” This sent the House leader into a flustered effort to insist that you cannot have “transparency” when the parties involved aren’t operating with the same set of facts. “Let us have a conversation where we don’t have to contradict in public the statistics that you put forth,” she urged later in the conversation. The data Mr. Trump turned to “are not factual” she said. “We have to have an evidence-based conversation.”
Translation: The only thing Ms. Pelosi considered transparent about this encounter was Mr. Trump’s dishonesty.
Now, maybe relations will be better behind the scenes, when there’s less impetus to grandstand or score points. (While Mr. Trump was the one in full diva mode, Mr. Schumer fired off a couple of good zingers.) Maybe progress can happen here and there, on select issues. (Criminal justice reform?) But, as far as public encounters go, don’t look for anything more productive any time soon.
After the meeting, Ms. Pelosi was less restrained, reportedly offering this piquant assessment to her conference colleagues: “It was so wild. It goes to show you: You get into a tinkle contest with a skunk, you get tinkle all over you.”
As for the issue of wall funding, the Democratic leader was even more cutting: “It’s like a manhood thing with him — as if manhood can be associated with him,” she said. “This wall thing.”
Buckle up, people. With or without a shutdown, things promise to get even bumpier.