The Slatest

Trump Says He’d “Look Foolish” if He Agreed to Reopen the Government Without Wall Funding. Is He Right?

President Trump sits in front of a Game of Thrones knock off poster during a cabinet meeting after saying earlier he would "look foolish" if he opened the government without wall funding.
President Trump sits in front of a Game of Thrones knockoff poster during a Cabinet meeting after saying earlier he would “look foolish” if he opened the government without wall funding. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the government shutdown entered its 12th day and a new post-holiday phase of the standoff in which Americans began returning to work, school, and presumably reading and watching the news. President Donald Trump met with emboldened Democratic leaders Wednesday, as well as his Cabinet, ostensibly looking for a way out of the stalemate over the lingering question of funding the border wall that resulted in the closure of the federal government on Dec. 22. So where do things stand?

The shutdown “could be a long time … and it could be quickly,” Trump said Wednesday. This seems like the most unassailably true, if grammatically troubling, thing Trump has said in some time.

Despite the usual Twitter screeds from the president, Trump has been very nonchalant about getting the government reopened. Trump, you’ll remember, is asking for some $5 billion in funding for a wall of some sort—or something he can spin as a wall—on the Southern border and seems to believe the politics and public opinion are (or at least will be) in his favor. While this appears to be a miscalculation of where Americans are at on the issue at the moment, you don’t have to look further than Trump’s cooked-up pre-midterm election tweets and comments about the so-called caravan of migrants a thousand miles away walking slowly toward the U.S. border to see where he holds immigration and the wall in the hierarchy of political issues. Immigration has and continues to be Trump’s go-to issue when things aren’t breaking his way, and the wall has always been a proxy for that debate. After a stinging, if unacknowledged loss in the midterm elections, here we are.

There are signs, however, that Trump has overplayed his hand. During Trump’s freewheeling meeting with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and incoming-Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Dec. 11 in the Oval Office, Trump said he would be “proud” to shut down the government over funding for the wall. That’s not exactly lowering expectations. Despite Trump’s apparent willingness to wait out the Democrats (and those in his own party), public pressure usually builds on whichever side is seen as being responsible for the mess and playing politics with the country’s core functions. So far, Trump has vacillated from proudly bearing responsibility for the current impasse to wildly blaming the Democrats for anything that comes to mind. Trump’s usual attempts to assign blame, however, haven’t brought the success he’s had in the past lobbing incendiary, contradictory, and usually ridiculous tweets.

The underlying issue is that Trump appears to be interpreting the shutdown as a sign of personal strength that will radiate out and somehow generate support. The optical problem he’s facing, however, is that the $5 billion figure seems utterly arbitrary in the grand scheme of things. As such, at the moment, Trump simply appears to be unwilling to negotiate, even undermining his own party and administration in order to make a pointless point—that $5 billion is the barometer of good versus bad border security policy because he says so. That argument has already been undercut by his own indecisiveness on a shutdown, as well as by Vice President Mike Pence’s approach to the Democratic leadership about a $2.5 billion compromise for border security and wall improvements. Trump publicly repudiated that attempt Wednesday. “Somebody said $2.5 [billion],” Trump said to reporters. “No. Look, this is national security we’re talking about.”

Anything below $5 billion does not constitute national security, the argument goes, which leaves Trump in the weeds on numbers that to ordinary Americans (outside the hardcore Trumpistas) might feel are pretty similar. “Democrats have signaled a willingness to approve $1.3 billion for border security as part of a broader spending bill, and a portion of that money could be used to replace and repair existing sections of wall and fencing,” the Washington Post reports. “But they have drawn the line at the use of any additional taxpayer money for the construction of a new wall.”

The longer Trump resists, the easier it will be for Democratic leaders to make the case that they offered billions for border security, but Trump wouldn’t budge. And that pressure on Trump looks set to increase this week when Democrats officially take control of the House on Thursday. Democrats are expected to pass bills that would fund and reopen portions of the government without the wall funding. “House Democrats on Thursday plan to pass two bills: one to fund the Homeland Security Department at current levels through Feb. 8, which would continue $1.3 billion in border barrier funding; and the other to fund the rest of the government through Sept. 30, at levels negotiated on a bipartisan basis in the Senate,” according to the Post.

“I said, ‘Mr. President, give me one good reason why you should continue your shutdown,” Sen. Chuck Schumer said after a White House meeting with the president Wednesday. “He could not give a good answer.” In fact, Trump reportedly told Schumer he would “look foolish” if he allowed the government to reopen while the wall funding was being negotiated, according to sources briefed on the meeting. “We have given the Republicans a chance to take ‘yes’ for an answer,” Pelosi said after the meeting. But with a West Wing hollowed out of talent and ideas and moderating influences, it’s not clear Trump himself actually wants to get to “yes” at all.