In February 1974, the Symbionese Liberation Army, a left-wing radical group, kidnapped the 19-year-old daughter of media mogul William Randolph Hearst. The SLA claimed to represent “all oppressed people,” “self-determination,” and “human and constitutional rights.” It “requested” that Hearst show “good faith” by providing hundreds of millions of dollars in food aid to the poor. “The people are awaiting your gesture,” an SLA leader told Hearst. “We will accept a sincere effort on your part.”
The Hearst case, like other abductions, was violent and far removed from the genteel halls of Congress. But if you want to understand the behavior of Republicans in the current government shutdown, you have to understand kidnapping. The tactics of President Donald Trump and his congressional allies—taking hostages, using them as messengers, and blaming their suffering on the people who could ransom them—echo the tactics of criminal captors like the SLA.
In the shutdown, the hostages are public employees, veterans, and everyone else who depends on federal payments. The ransom is $5 billion. Like other ideologues, the Republicans claim to have a good cause: a wall on the Mexican border. But morally, the bottom line is the same: You can’t hold people hostage, even if you think your cause is worthy. The question at stake isn’t border security. It’s whether the government will shut down and stay closed every time extremists demand money for a pet cause.
Trump forced this debacle. On Dec. 11, he said, “If we don’t get what we want … I will shut down the government.” On Jan. 2, two weeks into the shutdown, he thanked Vice President Mike Pence for congratulating him on taking “a strong stand to shut down the government until we secure the funding to build a wall.” But now Trump is trying to hold congressional Democrats, from whom he has demanded ransom, responsible for dragging their feet. “Look, this shutdown could end tomorrow, [or] it could also go on for a long time,” Trump told reporters on Saturday. “It’s really dependent on the Democrats.” On Sunday, Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, disputed suggestions that the president was responsible. On the contrary, Mulvaney proposed, “It’s the Democrats’ refusal to give the necessary money for border security that is the cause of the shutdown.”
Republicans are trying to recast their extortion as ordinary negotiation. “We’re asking for $5.6 billion. They’re offering us zero,” Mulvaney told CNN. He complained that in a meeting with Trump on Friday, Democrats “said they were not interested in having any further discussions until … the government was open.” Trump and Mulvaney dismiss that position as absurd. The least Democrats can do, according to the White House, is “come to the middle.”
Some abductors try to use their hostages as messengers. That’s what the White House is doing to federal employees caught in the shutdown. On Monday, a reporter asked Mercedes Schlapp, the White House director of strategic communications, “What’s the White House message to the federal workers who are on track to miss their first paycheck?” Schlapp urged these furloughed workers to “call the Democrats and basically tell the Democrats, ‘Stop the delay tactics, let’s negotiate.’ ”
When ransom isn’t paid, kidnappers escalate their threats, making it look as though the people withholding the money are at fault. The fate of the hostage, they insinuate, is up to her family. That’s how Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, talks about Trump’s hostages. Democrats should cut a deal with the president “before we get to the point where federal employees do not get paid,” McCarthy warned his colleagues on Tuesday.
On Tuesday night, Trump read a prepared statement on prime-time TV. Officially, it was a presidential address. In reality, it was a message from the kidnappers. “The federal government remains shut down for one reason and one reason only: because Democrats will not fund border security,” said Trump. “The only solution is for Democrats to pass a spending bill that defends our borders and reopens the government.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell repeated Trump’s demand on Wednesday morning. By refusing to pay for the wall, said McConnell, Democrats were “prolonging” the shutdown. He urged them to “negotiate a fair solution with the president to secure our nation and reopen all of the federal government.”
This is a charade. Democrats have already passed bills to reopen the government. The reason those bills haven’t become law is that McConnell refuses to let the Senate vote on them, and Trump refuses to sign them. When Republicans are asked why they’re sitting on these bills, they say it’s impossible to reopen the government before resolving the wall debate. On Tuesday, White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway said opening the government first wasn’t “practical.” Steve Scalise, the House Republican whip, said of the reopening and the wall, “You can’t have one without the other.” Neither Conway nor Scalise could explain the connection, because there isn’t one. The Republicans just don’t want to give up their hostages.
On Wednesday afternoon, Democrats went to the White House to discuss reopening the government. Trump walked out of the meeting. Pence, McCarthy, and Scalise blamed the meltdown on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “The president called the question in the meeting,” Pence told reporters afterward. “He asked Speaker Pelosi … if he reopened the government quickly, would she agree to funding for a wall or a barrier on the southern border? And when she said no, the president said, ‘Goodbye.’ ”
There’s a case to be made for a border wall, just as there’s a case to be made for feeding the poor. Congress is free to debate these issues anytime. But that’s not the question before us. The question before us is whether it’s acceptable—and whether it will become normal—to shut down the government as a bargaining tactic. If you pay ransom for hostages, you’ll get more hostage-takers. That’s true of kidnappings. It’s true of shutdowns, too.