President Donald Trump may be presiding over the first government shutdown ever to occur when one party controls Washington, but in his own telling he is just beginning to master the ways of the capital.
“I had to stay here in DC, which I’m becoming pretty proficient at,” he told wealthy donors in a video played at the Florida fundraiser he was supposed to attend on Saturday evening, but couldn’t.
“We had to stay here for the purpose of shutdown,” he continued, standing in a corner of the White House Rose Garden wearing a black overcoat and a white ball cap. “There shouldn’t be a shutdown, but there is. It’s caused by the Democrats. But we’re going to end up winning another victory.”
Whether the shutdown amounts to a political victory for Trump — or a dire miscalculation — remains an open question. On Sunday, there was little to indicate Trump was taking a leading role in helping break the stalemate between Democrats and Republicans. He did not appear in public. He hasn’t taken a meeting at the White House since Friday. And his only tweet of the day, calling for an end to the Senate filibuster, was roundly rejected by Republican congressional leaders.
It was a remarkable position for a President who entered office vowing to use skills honed in the real estate world to broker deals for the country. Instead of negotiating his own way out of the quagmire, Trump seemed content to watch lawmakers and his staff haggle from his third-floor perch at the White House, which he did not leave on Sunday.
In phone calls on Sunday, Trump encouraged Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the No. 2 Republicans in the Senate and House, to reach an agreement with Democrats. But as he did at the end of last week, he stressed they should come to him with a deal instead of offering his own ideas for a way out, according to a person familiar with the calls.
Trump also spoke with the Veterans Affairs secretary, David Shulkin, and Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen, who earlier in the day donned blue disposable gloves to hand out bins in a security line at Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport, part of an effort to highlight the federal employees who must continue working during the funding lapse.
Earlier in the day, Trump watched intently as two of his top aides blanketed the Sunday morning television programs to blame Democrats for the shutdown. Trump had personally advocated for the television appearances by his budget chief Mick Mulvaney and his legislative affairs director Marc Short, a White House official said.
In the interviews, the two men accused Democrats of stonewalling government funding for political ends. But faced with a political advertisement that accuses Democrats of being complicit in murders committed by immigrants, Short sought to distance the video from the White House.
“Well, you know that ad was produced by an outside group,” Short said. The video, produced by Trump’s election campaign, ends with Trump’s own voice saying he approved the message.
The disconnect underscored the reality that the shutdown has become as much about political posturing as it has about immigration, government funding or the business of running the country. In photos distributed by the White House on Saturday, Trump is shown meeting not with his legislative affairs or policy aides, but with communications staffers.
The White House comment line, used by citizens to voice their opinions to the President, was shuttered, replaced by a recorded message accusing Democrats of “holding government funding, including funding for our troops and other national security priorities, hostage to an unrelated immigration debate.”
Vice President Mike Pence even used an appearance at a US air base near the Syrian border to accuse Democrats of putting military pay in the lurch, an unusual venue for politically tinged remarks.
“A minority in the Senate has decided to play politics with military pay, but you deserve better,” Pence said, surrounded by troops in fatigues and camouflage tarpaulins. “You and your families shouldn’t have to worry for one minute about whether you’re going to get paid as you serve in the uniform of the United States.”
Elected officials generally avoid political talk when visiting military installations or speaking to troops. Asked by a reporter about the propriety of his words, Pence took a long pause before answering.
“I wanted these soldiers to know that we’re with them,” Pence said. “We’re not going to stand for it.”
Viewing coverage of the shutdown, Trump has vacillated between being upset at the amount of blame piled upon him and pleased at the equal amount of fault being lobbed at Democrats. He has at moments told aides he wants to become more directly involved, a person who has spoken with him said. But some of his advisers have discouraged it, telling Trump it is better that lawmakers devise their own agreement.
Privately, some of Trump’s aides worry that the President inserting himself into the negotiations could end, again, in confusion and failure. Last week, Trump decided to sit down with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer without informing many of his advisers, resulting in a back-and-forth that opened the White House up to criticism that their negotiating positions were muddled.
Chief of staff John Kelly, who was forced to phone Schumer on Friday afternoon to inform him that his offers fell short of the President’s immigration demands, came to appear more hardline than the President himself, who Schumer claimed was open to a deal.
Earlier in the week, Kelly drew Trump’s fury after he suggested in a television interview that Trump had moderated his position on immigration. He again found himself in the role of Trump’s conservative enforcer — a perception the President has historically loathed.
But with what several administration and congressional officials say is only a loose grasp on the smaller details of the immigration debate, Trump has been reliant on his aides to hammer out agreements with Congress. The situation has left Trump periodically enraged, including during a meeting earlier this month in the Cabinet Room when a list of administration demands on immigration left him perplexed.
“Who did this? This is way too much. I didn’t approve this,” Trump told his advisers, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham, who attended the meeting.
Graham, a South Carolina Republican working to secure votes for a short-term spending measure, offered sharp criticism of the White House staff on Sunday.
“The White House staff I think is making it very difficult,” Graham told reporters on Capitol Hill. “I’ve talked with the President, his heart is right on this issue. I think he’s got a good understanding of what will sell, and every time we have a proposal it’s only yanked back by staff members.”
The disconnect between Trump and Capitol Hill Republicans was in display again on Sunday when Trump tweeted his support for the so-called “nuclear option” that would disallow use of the filibuster in the Senate.
“Republicans should go to 51% (Nuclear Option) and vote on real, long term budget,” he wrote, despite the several times that suggestion has been rejected by Senate leaders in the past. It was rejected again by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office on Sunday.
At the White House, a quiet descended Sunday as the shutdown entered its second day. Most of the building’s staff will be furloughed if the lapse continues into Monday. The President’s upcoming trip to World Economic Summit in Davos is being reconsidered, officials said, though no final decision has been made on his travel to Switzerland.
If it’s scrapped, it would be the second trip scuttled as a result of the shutdown. Trump was upset to miss the Mar-a-Lago fundraising event held on the anniversary of his inauguration, a person familiar with his thinking said, and taped the video as a concession to the donors who paid upwards of $100,000 to attend.
Recorded hurriedly by a Republican party staffer to avoid rules barring White House employees from conducting political work, the video generated laughs among the GOP crowd.
“I like the amateur photography there,” Trump’s son, Eric, hosting the event in his father’s stead, quipped after it aired.