Smooth Move

Donald Trump’s idiotic shutdown threat could destroy his presidency.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at her weekly press conference on Capitol Hill, on April 6 in Washington, D.C.

Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Donald Trump has positioned himself to wake up on Saturday, the 100th Day™ of his presidency, with a shut-down government. It would be a fitting celebration of the Trump administration’s legislative record on this arbitrary milestone. The president has backed himself into a corner from which his pride won’t easily allow him to escape. It will now be up to congressional Republicans to find their president a face-saving legislative maneuver to avoid a humiliating lapse of appropriations under unified GOP government.

You may remember the Republican Congress well from such recent hits as the slapstick collapse in March of its promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, legislation they insist is still a work in progress. (We’ll see.)

On the government funding front, though, Republicans had been managing appropriations in proper adult fashion and looked poised to avoid a shutdown when funding lapses on Friday at midnight. They were executing the process the way it was meant to be executed: by getting Democratic and Republican appropriators in a room to hash out something that could get a bipartisan mix of 216 votes in the House and 60 in the Senate. One neat benefit of bipartisan spending negotiations is that they allow Republican leaders to circumvent poison-pill demands from either the House Freedom Caucus or the Senate axis of Sens. Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul.

Republican leaders’ problem now lay not within their own caucuses, but with the president. Trump, who usually does not care what provisions are in the bills he would sign so long as he would get to sign something, has made it known recently that he wants money to start his Southern border wall within the newest spending bill.

Congressional leaders had consensus that “the wall,” divisive as it was, would be dealt with separately in a supplemental spending bill, or perhaps never. But then our mercurial president—hungry for some legislative “points on the board” pegged to his 100-days jubilee—got it in his head that it would be savvy politics to threaten Democrats with the sabotage of individual health care markets in exchange for a few billion dollars of “wall money” in this spending bill. It hadn’t occurred to him that crippled insurance markets would hurt the president’s own standing, especially if the president took active measures to cripple them. Democrats aren’t biting.

The jury’s still out on whether Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney is himself the idiot whose idea this was, or if he just speaks for one. But he has served as the primary public spokesman for this wall-money-for-health-care play, and he’s made the case so publicly by now that it will be hard for the White House to walk it back without the appearance of defeat.

Aside from the president himself, Mulvaney may be the only public spokesman for this play. Few congressional Republicans have the administration’s back. Rep. Peter King—who wrote the 2006 border fencing law the administration is trying to fund—doesn’t believe now is the right time to be having this fight. House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, a realist, said on CNN Monday morning that if the border wall demand was met as the White House is insisting, “it would be a Republican-only bill”—a gently coded way of saying that such an appropriations bill couldn’t pass the Senate, and the government would shut down. He also noted that he had yet to see any plan from the administration about “where and what that wall would look like.” Rep. Tom Cole, a leadership ally, said he “wouldn’t risk a $1 trillion funding bill for a $3 billion wall.” The wall demand is not something that the House’s most conservative members are pushing, either. Rep. Mark Sanford, a Freedom Caucus member, said “no” on Sunday when asked if the wall was worth a government shutdown. “I think there are still questions about, wait a minute, this is a guy that said the Mexicans were going to pay for it,” he added. Fair point.

Trump’s wall demand, based on false leverage, has little constituency on Capitol Hill and interrupted a relatively smooth process to avoid a shutdown that would be embarrassing for him and career-threatening for many Republicans in Congress. But the demand has been made, and the president has staked himself on it. How does this one end?

The distant, best-case scenario for the White House would be to get Democratic negotiators to concede on wall money. The only way it could conceivably do this is to give them much, much more than they’re offering. Instead of just offering to appropriate some of the Affordable Care Act’s cost-sharing reductions, as the current offer stands, the administration could offer to give up on any further legislative efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and commit to improving the law. Or something. Yes, Democrats think the wall is dumb and counterproductive. But as I wrote last year, if Trump really thinks he needs the wall, then Democrats should consult the furthest reaches of their imagination on what to ask of this great American dealmaker.

Congress could also just ignore the president. Though Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said Sunday that the president was “insistent” on wall funding, neither Trump nor Mulvaney would flatly say that the president wouldn’t accept a spending bill without it. Appropriators, then, could continue their work without the wall distraction, move a negotiated bill through the House and Senate, and dare Trump to veto it. But congressional Republicans might not be willing to challenge their new president quite so frontally.

The easiest face-saving option would be for Republican leaders to set up a separate vote on the wall. This is the tactic that ex-Speaker Boehner, time and again, tried to employ to assuage conservative hard-liners who were holding up a must-pass bill: a separate vote on whatever their pet issue was, be it repealing the Affordable Care Act or defunding Planned Parenthood. It never worked very well, because the conservative hard-liners recognized that they were just being offered “show votes” that would die in the Senate. It may not be as difficult to trick Trump, who treats the showier aspects of politics much more seriously than he does the actual policies. Speaker Ryan could set up a separate vote the following week on border-wall funding and whip the votes to pass it; Trump could then blame filibustering Senate Democrats for blocking the wall indefinitely. Fine! Win-win-win.

The last—and worst—thing Trump could do though, is refuse to budge, allow the government to shut down, lose support from congressional Republicans, and then make a tough decision as his approval numbers and the Republican share on the generic congressional ballot fall to roughly 20 percent.

It would have served the president to game this out a few more steps before running his mouth. That would be another perfect lesson for these first 100 days.

Update 10:30 p.m.: Trump, in a surprisingly mature move, appears to be caving on his demand already. He told a gathering of conservative journalists Monday night “that he would be willing to return to the wall funding issue in September,” when the next funding measure comes up, according to the Associated Press. Instead, Republicans may seek some additional money in the spending bill devoted to non-physical border security measures.